Lejonvarn v Burgess

words when you get something for nothing...Sometimes you might be tempted to give some free professional advice to help a friend. But after the recent decision by the Court of Appeal, you might think carefully about the consequences of giving something for nothing…..

Mr and Mrs Burgess received a quote of over £ 170,000 to have their garden redesigned by a landscape gardener. So they turned to their friend and neighbour Basia Lejonvarn who was an architect. She provided project management and design services to the Burgess’ without charge and without any formal contract.

Mrs Lejonvarn also found builders to carry out the work and within months with escalating costs and various defects, Mrs Lejonvarn and the Burgesses were involved in an acrimonious email exchanges. 

Following the dismissal of the builders the work was completed by the original landscape gardener but at a significantly higher fee than the original quote. 

Mrs Lejonvarn was then sued by Mr and Mrs Burgess for damages of £265,000 for the additional and otherwise unnecessary cost of completing the project. Although no fees had been charged by Mrs Lejonvarn, the claim was pursued on the basis of an alleged assumption of responsibility for the provision of professional services by virtue of her acting as architect and project manager.

The Court’s Decision

The case was heard in January 2016 when the Judge found that there was no contract in place but the claim in tort was allowed to succeed because the evidence was clear that the services had been provided “in a professional context and on a professional footing.” The Judge's overall conclusion was that “Mrs Lejonvarn assumed responsibility to the Burgesses for performing professional services in respect of the Garden Project and that they specifically relied on her for that purpose.”

Mrs Lejonvarn appealed on the grounds that she did not owe a duty of care in the terms found or at all.

The Court of Appeal unanimously rejected her appeal. It decided that she had voluntarily extended her services in a professional way and in circumstances in which she knew the Burgesses would be relying on her to perform them properly.

Though she was not going to be paid initially, there was an expectation that she would be paid for later work. The Court found that notwithstanding the absence of any contract and though the services had been provided free of charge, Mrs Lejonvarn still owed Mr & Mrs Burgess a common-law duty of care because she possessed a special skill and had assumed a responsibility for the project.

The Court found that though Mrs Lejonvarn did not have to provide the services, to the extent that she did, she owed a duty to exercise reasonable care and skill.

Providing a professional service without charging a fee can also have implications for a professional indemnity insurance policy. For advice or guidance on this please contact our experts.