Can you be sued for free advice?
There was an interesting Court of Appeal decision just before Chistmas in a case involving a claim against a firm of solicitors - Padden v Bevan Ashford Solicitors  EWCA Civ 1616.
According to the Court of Appeal judgment, Mrs Padden "visited the defendant's Tiverton branch and told a receptionist that she needed to see a solicitor urgently, not least because she needed to get back home to see her children. She then was introduced to Rebecca Shinner, who, it transpires had only very recently qualified as a solicitor. Ms Shinner, who no longer works for the defendant, was described by the claimant as being 'very gentle' and 'young'. The meeting which then ensued was short. The claimant's evidence was that it may only have lasted 5 minutes, although she also suggested that it may have been as long as 15 minutes. A significant, and possibly the main or even only, reason why it was so short is that the claimant wanted to get away to see her children."
During that visit Mrs Padden explained that she had been asked to sign some documents by her husband's solicitor and he had told her that she must get independent legal advice before doing so. Mrs Padden explained the background to this request - her husband had stolen some money from a client of his and the documents would give the victim security over various assets (including the matrimonial home) so that the victim could ultimately be repaid and Mrs Padden's husband would not go to prison. Mrs Padden felt it important for her children's sake that their father should not go to prison.
Ms Shinner's advice was blunt. Again quoting from the judgment, "Ms Shinner advised the claimant not to proceed with the projected transaction. When the claimant made it clear that she was going to proceed, Ms Shinner said 'I hope your husband is worth it'. The claimant replied that it was the children she was concerned about, not her husband. At the end of this short meeting, Ms Shinner explained that the defendants' policy was that the first half-hour given over to a client was free of charge."
Subsequently a partner in the firm attended a further meeting involving Mrs Padden and her husband at which both of them signed various documents and the partner signed to certify that Mrs Padden had 'had the consequences of this deed and the obligations which it imposes on her explained by a solicitor/ legal executive' and that he was 'satisfied' that she 'understands the nature of this deed and its meaning and effect' and that 'to the best of [his] knowledge [she] has freely consented to it without undue influence or … in reliance upon any misrepresentation…'.
The firm never billed Mrs Padden for the work done or advice given.
To cut a long story short, matters went from bad to worse for Mrs Padden. She lost a lot of money as a result of signing the documents because the victim relied upon them to claim repayment of stolen monies. Her husband was indeed prosecuted and went to prison. It transpired he had stolen from others as well (unknown to Mrs Padden at the time she signed the documents). Mrs Padden subsequently sued the solicitors for negligence - notwithstanding that they had advised her not to sign and had made no charge for their work or advice.
Her claim was thrown out by a High Court judge.
But the Court of Appeal ruled that the High Court judge had been wrong to throw the claim out and that there should be a fresh High Court hearing before a different judge. The Court of Appeal ruled that the (undisputed) facts that no charge had been made and that Mrs Padden had been clearly advised not to go ahead were not sufficient to make her claim against the solicitors bound to fail. Whilst she had dropped in to the solicitors without an appointment (not having previously been a client) and had stayed only a few minutes that did not absolve the solicitors of their duty to advise her properly. The solicitors had a duty to advise Mrs Padden of the potential consequences of signing the documents and the simple recommendation not to sign them did not fulfil their duty to her. If time was short they should have advised Mrs Padden to make a further appointment to discuss matters more fully - and they did not do that.
The moral is - beware giving free advice off the cuff !