The risks of offering professional services to a friend (for free)
The Court of Appeal has confirmed that an architect owed a duty of care to friends when providing them with professional services, even though those services were provided for free.
In Lejonvarn v Burgess  EWCA Civ 254, the court held that although there was no contract between the parties, and therefore no contractual obligation to provide services, by doing so the architect was then under a duty of care to exercise those services with reasonable care and skill.
Mr and Mrs Burgess planned a large scale landscaping project of their garden. It was agreed that Ms Lejonvarn, a friend and qualified architect, would secure a contractor and oversee the project for no fee.
The Burgess’ subsequently raised concerns regarding the budget and overall progress. Ms Lejonvarn’s involvement came to an end. The project was completed by another architect.
Problems become apparent with the works that had been carried out under Ms Lejonvarn. The Burgess’ sought the cost of remedial works. The case was heard in the Technology and Construction Court, which held that Ms Lejonvarn owed a duty of care in tort for the provision of services when acting as architect and project manager.
Ms Lejonvarn appealed. The Court of Appeal rejected the appeal.
There was no contract in place and so Ms Lejonvarn had not been under a contractual duty to provide the services. However, she was under a duty to exercise reasonable care and skill in respect of those services that she did provide. This included a duty to oversee the budget: the Burgess’ had made clear that cost was a concern and Ms Lejonvarn was alive to this.
Ms Lejonvarn possessed a special skill and had assumed responsibility for the project. The Burgesses relied on this. The services were provided for free but on a professional footing. Importantly, Ms Lejonvarn’s involvement was extensive (lasting several months), she expected it to lead to paid work (it was anticipated that she would be asked to undertake, and would charge for, the subsequent design work) and she provided the services as a way of advancing her business.
This is a different situation to an individual offering some free, one off advice to a friend in the course of informal conversation.
This case is a cautionary reminder that a professional can assume a
duty of care even where there is no formal contract. This remains the case even where providing a service to friend and/or where no money changes hands.