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Professional Duties and Personal Relationships Like Oil and Water

In a striking cautionary tale which underlined that professional duties and personal relationships rarely mix well, the High Court found that an architect who assisted friends with a garden transformation project owed them a legal duty of care even though most of her services were provided free of charge.

A wealthy couple had planned major works in their garden but were unhappy with a quote that they had received from an established landscape gardener. They turned to their architect friend who found contractors to carry out the work at a lower cost. The project was far from complete when the couple fell out with her in respect of alleged delays, budget overruns and defects in the work.

The couple ordered the contractors off the project, which was eventually completed by the gardener whose quote they had earlier rejected. Their friendship with the architect permanently fractured, they sued her for £265,000 in damages, alleging breach of contract and professional negligence.

The Court found that, as no formal agreement had been reached and the architect’s fee had never been discussed, there was no contractual relationship between her and the couple. However, it rejected her arguments that she was merely involved in the project as a friend who happened to have a professional background.

Although her assistance in respect of the excavation and landscaping aspects of the project was to be provided gratuitously, she had not acted merely as a conduit or facilitator between her friends and the contractors. She was heavily involved in finding and supervising the latter and it was not a case of a professional giving ad hoc advice to a friend in an informal context. The couple were her clients and she had provided her services on a professional footing.

The Court’s ruling on preliminary issues opened the way for the couple to pursue their claim against the architect for alleged breaches of her professional duty of care. However, in view of their former friendship and the substantial costs of a full trial, the Court urged the parties to settle the dispute by mediation.