Just because you haven’t paid for professional advice doesn’t mean that the person who gave it to you is relieved from liability if it was negligently given.
A recent case should serve as a warning to anyone with professional skills who offers free advice to friends and others.
It involved a couple who wished to have their garden landscaped. They asked a good friend, who is a professional designer, for advice and she recommended a contractor to carry out the earthworks. The general agreement was that when the major works were carried out their friend would provide some of her expertise on a fee-paying basis.
However, the contractor’s work proved to be unsatisfactory and the couple eventually used a different contractor to complete the job without any further involvement from their friend. The cost of the works was more than double the £130,000 they had been led to expect.
The couple then sued their friend, claiming that the increased cost of the works was due to her having negligently recommended the original contractor.
It was clear to the court that there was no contract between the couple and their friend, so a claim under the law of contract failed.
However, their alternative claim, under the law of tort (damage caused to another) succeeded. The friend had a duty to protect them from economic loss and, as she had in effect caused the loss, she was liable.
The case spells out the danger of giving free advice and makes it clear that the mere absence of a contract does not mean that advice given carries no strings. The judge commented that ‘in the absence of a contract it is important to exercise greater care in distinguishing between social and professional relationships’.
However, although the case has been widely portrayed as meaning that ‘off-the-cuff’ advice may be risky to give, it should be mentioned that the judgment stated that ‘this was a significant project…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.’