The Petition of a resident of the UK,
Declares that the Petitioner instructed a senior partner of Withers LLP to oversee the purchase of a property overseas and paid approximately £5,000 in fees; further that in doing so, the Petitioner believed that her interests would be protected in full and that no possible complexities or irregularities could occur; further that a few years after the purchase of the property, the Petitioner came to consider selling it and was informed by three separate legal advisers and three separate estate agents that the property was legally defective due to the absence of a crucial legal document and due to building regulation abuses by the previous owner; further that the Petitioner was advised that without this document the property could not be legally inhabited; further that the Petitioner was advised that she should have been formally advised of the legal status of the property prior to the purchase being concluded; further that the Petitioner had not been advised of either the significance of this document or the fact that it was not in place at any point prior to the purchase; further that the Petitioner believes that Withers LLP initially accepted an error had taken place at the time of purchase due to an error of translation and gave an undertaking to rectify this; further that when the document could not be obtained, Withers LLP denied all liability stating that the responsibility for ascertaining the property’s legal status in relation to the document had never fallen within the acting lawyer’s remit (but admitting that it should have been in place at the time of purchase and that an error had taken place) and then subsequently (in contradiction) stating that the document had never been a legal requirement; further that the Petitioner issued proceedings against Withers LLP but was forced to discontinue them due to escalating costs and ill health suffered as a direct result of acute stress and psychological distress due to the circumstances the Petitioner found herself in; further that following press interest in the case the Petitioner has received communications from Withers LLP which the Petitioner perceives as a threat of defamation proceedings if she reveals documents that she has obtained under a Subject Access Request in relation to the issue of the said document to a third party; further that the Petitioner believes that Withers LLP have used their power as a large international company to exhaust the Petitioner financially and emotionally and have exploited the power disparity between a large legal firm and a private individual or customer; further that the Petitioner feels intimidated and bullied by Withers LLP and feels that she has been intimidated into not revealing details of her case to the press and that this sense of being bullied has left the Petitioner with enduring emotional damage and a lack of trust in the legal profession and the ethos within which it operates; further that the Petitioner believes that other cases of professional negligence taken against Withers LLP (and won) by other former clients demonstrate that Withers LLP do not always accept responsibility within their internal compliance procedures for legitimate negligence claims; further that the Petitioner believes that the civil, legal and regulatory remedies are inadequate for someone of ordinary means and that by nature of the imbalance of power between the resources of any former client (as a private individual) and the firm, the individual will always be vulnerable in these circumstances as they are unlikely to have the same power as a law firm; further that the Petitioner believes that the cost to obtain justice against a legal firm is prohibitive for those who do not have the resources to match a firm; further that the Petitioner believes that this allows a firm to grind out costs to ensure that proceedings end by forcing delay and mounting costs in civil legal routes; further that the Petitioner is distressed that her vulnerability and limited means in relation to that of Withers LLP as a powerful international company has resulted in her being denied the opportunity to have her case heard in court and therefore is unable to legally claim that Withers LLP should have accepted responsibility for negligence as the Petitioner has not had the opportunity to prove such action; further that the Petitioner was informed by the regulatory body, the Legal Ombudsman, that they have no power to investigate alleged negligence; and further that the Solicitors Regulation Authority does not offer any avenue for redress in circumstances such as alleged negligence either.
The Petitioner therefore requests that the House of Commons urges the Government to make provision to review the civil, legal and regulatory remedies available in disputes between individuals and law firms to ensure that the costs of seeking a negligence claim are not oppressive; and further requests that the House urges the Government to give regulatory bodies the ability to investigate and arbitrate in disputes where an individual wishes to claim that a law firm has committed professional negligence.
And the Petitioner remains, etc.—[Presented by John Hemming, Official Report, 8 December 2014; Vol. 589, c. 3P.]
Observations from the Secretary of State for Justice:
When a person receives negligent advice and suffers a loss as a result of the professional negligence they are able (subject to the rules of the Court) to sue. The legal remedy is damages to put the defendant in the position they would have been in if the negligence had not occurred. The Civil Procedure Rules include a pre-action protocol for professional negligence cases (Professional Negligence Pre-Action Protocol), which aims among other things to ensure the parties are on an equal footing, to save expense and to ensure the dispute is dealt with proportionately, expeditiously and fairly.
The legal profession is independent of Government, and is regulated by different approved regulators for which the Legal Services Board (LSB) has oversight responsibility. The approved regulators and LSB are also independent of Government, as are the bodies which deal with complaints about those in the legal profession.
The regulatory body for solicitors is the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the independent regulatory arm of the Law Society. The Government believe that the SRA already has the ability to investigate where professional misconduct is alleged. Detailed rules governing the conduct of solicitors are published by the SRA, and it has the specialist knowledge, expertise, and enforcement powers enabling them to take appropriate action in cases of professional misconduct.
In addition, Part 6 of the Legal Services Act 2007 set up the Office for Legal Complaints, which established the independent Legal Ombudsman scheme. The Legal Ombudsman replaced the previous system whereby complaints about lawyers were considered by their own regulatory bodies.
The Legal Ombudsman is a free service for consumers and, while it does not make judgements about professional misconduct or negligence (as this is the domain of the SRA and courts respectively) it does consider complaints about the level of service provided by a solicitor. Under its scheme rules, the Legal Ombudsman has time limits in place for making complaints, which are normally six years from the date of the act or omission or three years from the date the complainant should reasonably have known that there were grounds for complaint. In appropriate cases the Legal Ombudsman can order redress up to a maximum of £50,000.