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Couple Pay for Pursuing 'Speculative' Professional Negligence Claim

Those who engage in speculative litigation on the basis of weak evidence can expect to be hit hard in the pocket. In a case on point, a couple who sued a friendly architect after she provided them with free assistance in re-landscaping their garden found themselves on the receiving end of eye-watering legal costs bills.

The couple and the architect were friends and former neighbours. She offered to help them gratuitously in transforming their garden. After the project was blighted by cost overruns and other difficulties, the couple launched professional negligence proceedings against her, claiming about £300,000 in damages.

Following a preliminary hearing, a judge found that, although there was no contract between them, the architect owed the couple a duty of care. That decision was later upheld by the Court of Appeal. The latter ruling, however, made plain that the duty of care only related to professional services the architect had actually provided and that she could have no liability in respect of any omissions.

Following a subsequent trial of the action, the couple's claim was dismissed in its entirety on the basis that the architect had in fact had little involvement in the project and had not been negligent. The couple were ordered to pay her legal costs – which were by then already estimated at over £700,000 – on the standard basis.

Upholding the architect's challenge to that ruling, the Court of Appeal found the couple liable to pay a substantial proportion of her costs, including the costs of the trial, on the punitive indemnity basis. Following receipt of the Court's decision on the duty of care issue, the couple should have realised that their remaining claims against the architect were so weak and speculative that they should not be pursued any further. They had also unreasonably refused her offer, made early on in the proceedings, to settle their claim for £25,000.