No Contract, No Remuneration – You May Still Owe a Duty of Care

In a decision that will be required reading for all professionals, the Court of Appeal has ruled that liability in respect of substandard services does not depend upon the existence of a contract, or even remuneration. The point was made in the case of an architect who helped friends to landscape their garden free of charge.

GardenA couple wished to iron out steep slopes in the garden of their £5 million home and to install restful terraces, paths, lawns and flower beds. They were unhappy with a £150,000 quote from an established landscape gardener and the architect offered her services and employed builders to carry out the work at a lower price.

However, the project was alleged to have gone badly wrong and, after an exchange of acrimonious emails, the builders were ordered off the job. The work was eventually completed by the gardener whose quote had earlier been rejected and the couple blamed the architect for cost overruns and numerous alleged defects. They estimated the value of their claim at £265,000.

A judge found that the architect, despite having provided her services for free, had assumed responsibility for the work and had ultimately hoped to benefit from her involvement in such a prestigious project. Despite the absence of a contract, it was fair, just and reasonable to find that she owed the couple a duty of care.

In rejecting the architect’s challenge to that ruling, the Court of Appeal noted that her relationship with the couple was not merely informal or social and that the context was a professional one. She had voluntarily tendered skilled professional services in circumstances where she knew that the couple would rely upon her and it was foreseeable that any failure on her part would cause them economic loss. Her duty to employ reasonable care and skill extended to designing and project managing the garden transformation and controlling its cost.