In a decision that should be of interest to all professionals, the English High Court has recently considered legal obligations when performing gratuitous services.

Background

Hoping to save costs, the claimant couple engaged their friend of ten years, Mrs Lejonvarn (a self-described architect in sole practice) to assist with a significant garden landscaping project at the couple’s London home. Mrs Lejonvarn secured a contractor to carry out the works, and attended the site at regular intervals to manage the project. The couple later took a claim alleging the works were defective. Mrs Lejonvarn contended at trial that she was merely an intermediary between the couple and the contractors.

Decision

The English High Court found the parties did not intend to be bound by a contractual relationship, nor was there any intention that consideration would be given for the services provided. However, the Court held that Mrs Lejonvarn had a duty of care to provide particular services to the standard of a reasonably competent architect and project manager. The relevant ingredients giving rise to a duty of care were present, notably the assumption of responsibility by Mrs Lejonvarn and reliance on her by the couple. The Court came to the conclusion that Mrs Lejonvarn was heavily involved in the project and provided her services on a professional footing, albeit gratuitously and in the absence of a contract.

Lessons

Although decided on its particular facts (which were far from the typical ad hoc circumstances under which many professionals no doubt offer services to friends), the case highlights the risks surrounding such informal arrangements. Professionals who do decide to lend a hand will be in a far clearer position if they go to the trouble of putting a written contract in place in case anything does go wrong.