Solicitors risk breaching conduct rules and could face insurance claims if they use non-specialist online sources for legal research, a leading QC solicitor has warned.

Evidence has emerged that increasing numbers of solicitors, from trainees to senior partners, are putting clients and their own practices at possible risk by using collaboratively written online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, Google and other search engines for legal research.

This is despite having specialist libraries and subscriptions to Lawtel, Justis and other authoritative on-line resources.

Professional conduct solicitor Andrew Hopper QC said: ‘Citing any authority in court other than the actual source is a recipe for disaster and an irate judge. Wikipedia and the rest are recognised and valued, but lawyers should use their common sense, filter and check everything by going back to the original.’

Frank Maher, a partner at Liverpool risk management and law firm Legal Risk, said search engine results can get facts wrong.

He added: ‘They do not always update cases. An online press release, for example, might be out of date because the case has been appealed and the outcome changed. That’s more than just embarrassing – you risk insurance claims and conduct issues.’

Emma Harris, Law Society librarian, told the Gazette: ‘Today’s trainees, despite the best efforts of law school librarians, don’t know the world outside the internet. We had a trainee come into the library who, when given the textbook that would answer his query, asked, "What’s this list at the back and what do these little numbers mean?" That would be the index.

‘Qualified lawyers are also vulnerable. Twice we’ve had practising solicitors contact the library looking for the full text of a statute that applied to their case. One statute turned out to be Swedish law, the other American. They had done their research through a non-legal search engine.’

Harris pointed to a Wikipedia entry on intestacy rules that also highlighted the dangers of internet research. ‘Whoever wrote it got the rules mixed up with inheritance tax. Anyone following its advice would make a very expensive mistake.’

Amanda McKenzie, information services manager at City firm Olswang, said: ‘A fee-earner or trainee needs to use authoritative material. This is a risk and a compliance issue.’