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Free advice between friends: exercise caution

In Lejonvarn v Burgess and another, the Court of Appeal upheld the first instance decision that a person who provided services to her friends, free of charge, did so on a “professional basis” and therefore assumed a duty of care in tort to exercise reasonable skill and care to them when providing such services.

The facts

Mrs Lejonvarn was an architect and good friend and former neighbour of Mr and Mrs Burgess. The Burgesses wished to landscape their garden and Mrs Lejonvarn offered to project manage the garden project, free of charge, with the intent to provide subsequent design work at a later stage for a fee. The parties never concluded a contract for the services but work began. A dispute subsequently arose between the parties as the project overran, the costs escalated and the Burgesses were unhappy with the quality of the work. The Burgesses claimed against Mrs Lejonvarn for the increased costs of completing the works (£265,000), alleging that even though there was no written contract, she had assumed a duty of care and had not fulfilled that duty.

The decision

At first instance, the court agreed that Mrs Lejonvarn had assumed a duty of care to the Burgesses in the tort of negligence to exercise reasonable skill and care when providing her project management services and was liable for damages. The formality which the parties approached the work, and the history of the Mr and Mrs Burgess relying upon Mrs Lejonvarn’s architectural skills on a number of previous occasions were important factors in the court’s decision. “This was a significant project…, and was being approached in a professional way. This was not a piece of brief ad hoc advice of the type occasionally proffered by professional people in a less formal context. Instead, the services were provided over a relatively lengthy period of time and involved considerable input and commitment on both sides. They also involved significant commercial expenditure on the part of the Burgesses. It would be wrong to categorise this as akin to a favour given without legal responsibility.”  

Mrs Lejonvarn appealed against the decision but the Court of Appeal unanimously agreed with the first instance judge. Key points from the Court of Appeal were that:

  • Mrs Lejonvarn had “assumed responsibility” for overseeing the project – she was not providing her services on an ad hoc basis but over a length of time and involving significant expense;
  • the fact that the parties had not concluded a formal contract, nor the fact that Mrs Lejonvarn was providing the services free of charge (at this stage of the project) did not prevent the conclusion that the relationship was a professional one - it was sufficient that the scope of the services for which Mrs Lejonvarn assumed responsibility were clear and identifiable;
  • Mrs Lejonvarn was under a duty to exercise reasonable skill and care in providing her professional services as an architect

The implications

This case does not suggest you should refuse a friend’s request for advice in a social context. The case distinguished between a piece of ad hoc advice volunteered by professional people in a social context and a professional relationship.  Whilst the parties were friends; Mrs Lejonvarn was providing her services in a professional context, with an expectation of future paid work and the Burgesses were relying on her performing her services properly.

Having said this, it would be sensible to exercise caution when offering friends your professional advice or providing services free of charge to current or prospective clients as this case does show that providing the advice or service for free, outside of a business context, will not necessarily mean that you will not incur potential liability. Whilst each case will turn on its own facts, it is a useful reminder to professionals to be careful if they are using their professional expertise and the person they are assisting, is relying on the expertise.