The High Court upholds the “reasonably competent solicitor” test for defining the scope of a solicitor’s duty of care and refuses to extend the duty to include achieving a particular result.
In 1999, the claimant developed a system that provided satellite navigation to road users through a mobile telephone. The claimant sought investors for his company, Navicom. In June 1999, two Scots investors, Mr Curran and Mr Willis, agreed to invest £200,000 for a 60% stake in the company. At around the same time, a joint patent application in the names of the claimant, Mr Curran and Mr Willis was submitted.
On 14 June 1999, the claimant sought advice from the defendant. The defendant expressed concern at the fact that the claimant had agreed to hand over control of his company to the investors and recommended renegotiation. Buoyed by a successful meeting with Ericsson, and a recommendation for a government grant, the claimant sought to reduce the investors control over the company. Unsurprisingly, the investors objected and relations deteriorated.
Taking into account all the circumstances, the defendant sought to negotiate a resolution. It obtained terms that might have been acceptable to the claimant had he not objected on principle.
The government grant was lost, and the venture failed.
In January 2000, the claimant lodged an application to the Controller of Patents to determine ownership of the Patent. The investors did not contest the application. The claimant relied on this as evidence for his contention that the defendant should have made a similar application in 1999 rather than seeking to negotiate with the investors.
The judge found on the facts that there was no evidence that the investors would have allowed an application to proceed uncontested had one been made in 1999. The judge considered that the defendant was aware that litigation surrounding the patent would have been both damaging to the claimant’s interests and costly, and that the decision to negotiate was in the best interests of the claimant in the circumstances.
In rejecting the claim, the judge stated that it is not the duty of a solicitor to achieve a particular result. Instead when assessing whether a solicitor has fulfilled their duties to a client, you need only consider whether the solicitor has acted in the manner of a reasonably competent solicitor in all the circumstances.
The claimant’s desired result was in the judge’s assessment unachievable, and the actions of the defendant were regarded as the closest that the defendant could come to saving the grant and the venture.
This case highlights the point that a professional’s failure to achieve a client’s desired outcome does not mean that a professional has necessarily failed in his duties to his client. A professional has no duty to achieve the unachievable – he/she must only do that which another reasonably competent professional would have done in those circumstances.