The Court of Appeal has upheld a negligence claim against a law firm after finding that its ‘commoditised’ advice failed to cover the full extent of a claim.
Yorkshire firm Raleys had secured former miner Andrew Procter damages in 2003 after settling his vibration white finger claim against two former employers for the sum of £11,141.
Procter subsequently made a negligence claim against the firm after it emerged that he made no claim for either loss of earnings or for ‘services’ – the help needed with domestic tasks as a result of an injury.
Procter claimed a further £11,079 as damages arising from Raleys’ negligence. He was awarded half that amount by His Honour Judge Gosnell at Leeds County Court (pictured), who criticised the use of questionnaires and standardised letters with little personal contact.
Raleys appealed the decision on the basis that Procter understood the advice on the settlement based on three letters sent to him. The firm gave evidence that of all the claims for services made by the firm, only 2.8% were wholly unsuccessful, compared with 6% nationally.
The firm argued in court that financial constraints on solicitors required them to ‘commoditise’ their advice to potential claimants.
But Lord Justice Tomlinson said the letters were unclear in their advice, and the firm had two opportunities when speaking to Procter on the phone to establish the full nature of his claim.
‘The solicitors were dealing with a client who could fairly be regarded as unsophisticated in the relevant field,’ said the judge, in a ruling made last month.
‘The written advice given to him was unclear, and there were clear indications that it may not have been understood.
‘It is not asking much of a solicitor in such circumstances to make sure that his client understand the opportunity apparently being passed up.’
Tomlinson said the fact that Procter left three questions blank in his initial questionnaire ‘should have rung alarm bells’.
He also dismissed the idea that the firm should have been too concerned about rising costs to ask more searching questions of its client.
‘I reject the notion that a solicitor should feel inhibited from ensuring that his client has understood advice given to him by the consideration that so ensuring might generate a further fee payable by the client.’
Mellor Hargreaves, the north-west firm representing Procter, said around 112,000 claims brought under the miners’ compensation scheme set up by the former Department of Trade and Industry were eligible for the ‘services’ element, but only 42% of them included this.
Robert Godfrey, partner and head of professional negligence, said the case has particular relevance with respect to the fixed-fee regime and claims portal that have emerged in recent years.
‘The judges were quick to dismiss the appeal by Raleys and in court were highly critical of the commoditised way in which these claims were handled,’ he added.
Carol Gill, managing partner of Raleys Solicitors, said: ‘The Procter case is one of 186 similar claims made against Raleys, the vast majority of which have been brought by the law firm Mellor Hargreaves, of Oldham. Raleys has successfully defended 141 of them, and has conceded and settled a further 35.
‘The remaining 10 claims have gone to trial, where five judgments have been awarded in favour of Raleys, four in favour of the claimants, including two that have been upheld on appeal, and one is awaiting judgment after a trial held on 15 and 16 April.’