In the case of Susan Berney v Thomas Saul (T/A Thomas Saul & Co) [2013] EWCA Civ 640, the Court of Appeal has provided further guidance as to the date of the accrual of a cause of action in a solicitor’s negligence case.

Ms Berney (“MB”) instructed Thomas Saul & Co (“TS”) in 1999 to act for her in a personal injury claim following a road traffic accident, for which liability had been admitted.

In 2004 MB instructed new solicitors, who advised her that, given the significant delay in serving particulars, the claim was likely to be struck out. As a result of facing such significant litigation risks, MB felt obliged to settle her claim for £25,000 plus costs in November 2005.

The question for the Court of Appeal (Moses, Rimer, Gloster LJJ) was: when did MB’s cause of action accrue for the purposes of limitation.

However the Court of Appeal did not agree with this reasoning. MB submitted that limitation ran from the date her claim was settled, and thus her professional negligence claim was in time.

(a) actual damage can be understood to be any detriment, liability or loss (including contingent liabilities) capable of assessment in money terms; and

(b) a useful formulation to consider was "when was the claimant worse off financially by reason of a breach of the duty of care than he would otherwise have been?" (applying Forster v Outred & Co [1982] 1 W.L.R. 86, and Nykredit v Edward Erdman Group Ltd [1997] 1 W.L.R. 1627).

Further, it was held that it was incorrect to construe MB’s claim as one for diminution of the value of her chose in action rather than one for the loss as a result of having to settle the personal injuries claim. Although there was a litigation risk that she might not get permission to serve her particulars of claim out of time, this was extremely small. Liability had been admitted, and to strike it out would have denied her access to the court (Price v Price [2003] EWCA Civ 888 considered). Nor was there any reason to suppose that her claim would have been limited to a particular sum. Whilst it was clear that medical evidence was continuing to be sought and that the November 2005 settlement reflected the litigation risk and costs risks, it could not be said that she had suffered actual financial loss prior to that date. Accordingly, MB’s professional negligence claim was in time.

Moses LJ, further held that it did not follow that actual damage had not been suffered earlier necessarily from the fact that there was a settlement. He held that there was a real risk that prior to the date of settlement an application to extend time for service of particulars might have been granted only on condition that MB's claim was confined to the sum originally claimed or such lesser sum based on the disclosed evidence. However, that did not affect the result on the facts of the instant case.

A (further) salutary aspect for legal professionals to note in this case comes from Sir Richard Buxton, who in granting permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal on 8 November 2012, stated: “… I also take the view that the court should tread cautiously before striking out cases that(apparently) reflect a failure of legal professional service.” This, and indeed the judgment of the Court of Appeal itself, may well be taken to suggest the affordance judicial sympathy for claimant parties in similar cases. This may well translate to a degree of lenience when it comes to calculating such limitation periods.

The judgment of Gloster LJ could also be interpreted to suggest a certain degree of criticism of the judicial treatment of MB before the courts below. Few would deny that it was no mean feat of MB to continue to prosecute her claim before the Court of Appeal despite having had her argument dismissed twice previously, before two ascending levels of judge. It is likely that the recent judgment in her case may be taken as a warning by county court judges to ensure that potential lines of argument taken by litigants-in-person are properly ventilated, especially in proceedings where draconian measures such as strike outs are sought. This of course may have a significant impact upon the nature of future litigation, if – as widely predicted – the civil courts continue to see an exponential rise in unrepresented litigants.