What are four of the most common causes of solicitors’ professional indemnity claims?

Professional indemnity claims are a significant risk for solicitors and, in the event of a loss, clients often allege they were not properly advised and it can be difficult to defend claims.

In this article we look at four of the most common professional indemnity claims scenarios.

1. Failure to record instructions and advice given

In the event of a loss, solicitors’ clients often allege they were not properly advised. If a solicitor does not have a record of the advice they gave to clients, it can be very difficult to defend claims, particularly if a substantial period of time has elapsed.

Without written records to refer to, courts will often prefer the evidence of clients, concluding that as the transaction or matter is likely to have been a one-off for them, they will have a much better recollection of the advice given than a busy solicitor who may have been handling many other matters at the time.

Key points

  • Keep clear and detailed notes of advice sought and given
  • In transactional matters, don’t just rely on successive drafts as a record of what the client wanted

2. Failure to record the scope of the retainer

If an engagement letter setting out the work the solicitor has been asked to carry out is not provided, the scope of their duties is likely to be unclear which can make it harder for them to defend any subsequent claim.

Conversely, if there is a clear, written record of what the solicitor has agreed to do, this can significantly improve claims defensibility.

Key points

  • A retainer letter should be sent out for every instruction, setting out clearly what work the solicitor will be carrying out, and making it clear what they will not be advising on
  • If, during the course of work, the scope of the retainer changes, a new letter should be sent out, clearly identifying those changes

3. Advising outside the area of expertise

If a business describes itself as having specialist expertise in a particular area, it will be judged in court by this standard. This will occur even if the individual within the firm who handled the specific case that led to a claim was not a specialist.

Claims arising from a lack of experise often relate to complex areas such as tax, leasehold enfranchisement, defamation or foreign jurisdiction.

Key points

  • Be careful not to stray from advising on areas where you do have expertise (e.g. conveyancing) into related areas where you do not (e.g. tax)
  • Consider processes and systems to ensure partners are not tempted to hoard work for themselves, which could increase the risk of straying outside their area of expertise

4. Third parties

You may be surprised to receive a claim from somebody who was not a client however this can and does happen. A court will consider whether a solicitor, expressly or impliedly, assumed responsibility to a third party.

Responsibility to a non-client is most often assumed when there is direct communication between the solicitor and that third party. However, solicitors can sometimes find themselves owing a responsibility to a claimant with whom they have had no direct contact e.g. a lender when acting for a borrower or the beneficiaries of a will.

Key points

  • Be aware of the risks of inadvertently assuming duties to third parties
  • Ensure your retainer letter contains an appropriate disclaimer that the advice may not be shown to, or relied upon, by third parties
  • Resist any demands for advice to be shown to or relied on by third parties e.g. lenders

Source: Zurich Insurance (insider.zurich.co.uk)

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