Quite a long time ago (when I was really Coventry Man) I wrote a piece Mind What You Say on the dangers of solicitors giving free advice. It was based on the case of Padden v Bevan Ashford, and involved advice being given to a wife in relation to the giving of a charge over the matrimonial home to secure her husband’s liabilities. The advice took 15 minute or so, it was basically correct (“don’t sign it”) and there was no charge made, but the solicitors were still liable, or at any rate potentially liable as this was an appeal before the final trial of the action.
In that case the Court of Appeal made clear that if a solicitor (or other professional) accepts instructions to do something then they have to do it properly, and the fact that there is no fee does not remove their liability if they get things wrong.
The point that I made was that it is vital for the solicitor to keep a good note of the advice given, in case a disgruntled client comes back complaining up to 6 years later, and you need to be able to prove what happened perhaps 8 years later, when the solicitor has seen hundreds of other clients and can’t remember this one.
The brief relevant facts (and there are lots of issues, such as suing the wrong entity that I won’t deal with here) are that Mr J, The Chairman and a major shareholder of Swansea City AFC, went to JCP for initial, free, advice on his divorce in April 2011. He was told that because of his level of indebtedness he was unlikely to achieve a clean break settlement, and he should delay matters. Subsequently Swansea City achieved promotion to the Premier League, the value of their shares soared, and in 2016 his wife petitioned for divorce and achieved a settlement of £2.25m. He claimed that if he had been advised to start divorce proceedings in 2011 he could have avoided this result, and the solicitors should have realised that his financial position was likely to improve and advised accordingly.
Again, this is a preliminary decision on an application to strike the claim out, so all is still to play for. However from what I can see in the report it was not even argued that the solicitors were not liable because the work was free. So they have at the very least been involved in hundreds of hours of non-chargable work in preparing their defence, even if it succeeds in the end. And (if J had not mistakenly sued the new JCP Ltd instead of the JCP LLP that gave the advice) they would have had to fight (in 2019/20) on the basis of the attendance note, such as it was, of a free interview given in 2011.
The advice to take away with this is clear:
- all advice had to be professional. It can be short, and preliminary, but this has to be made clear at the time, and the client advised to come back for more detailed advice before initial comments are relied upon;
- take a good note (preferably typed and copied to the client) of any advice given, and keep it in your filing system so that it can be found 6 years later if necesary, after the solicitor involved has left;
- this is especially important if the client indicates that they aren’t going to take your advice;
- try not to give off-the-cuff advice, especially out of the office. If you do, follow it up with an email or short letter summarising what you said and emphasising its initial nature;
- be especially careful on the telephone;
- and in articles on the internet (this is journalism, not advice – see the box opposite);
Some people won’t advise informally at all. This is however difficult in practice, and most lawyers are prepared to have an initial chat with potential clients for 10-15 minutes. But it is vital not to give hard advice when you don’t know many of the details, and often better to insist on a formal meeting, or at least an exchange of emails, for anything that is important, or likely to become so.
Doctors are famous for trying to avoid advising on ailments at parties, with good reason. Lawyers need to take care too. Clients often don’t appreciate how complicated some questions are, and how qualified any advice has to be, and don’t really listen if you tell them of the limitations of what you can say. So if you are telling them something that matters, you need to do it properly, and preferably for a fee. At the very least, this will make it clear to both of you that you are putting your name on the line, as well as helping pay the rent..