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Professional Negligence: The complete guide to making a claim

Legal claims on the grounds of professional negligence often present a disruptive and stressful challenge for any business or individual. For the majority of cases of this nature, pursuing a court claim can be a time-consuming and expensive process for those involved. It is therefore essential to gain a good understanding of the circumstances in which professional negligence applies in order to ensure that any prospective claim is valid.

This guide offers a succinct overview of the main considerations and procedures involved with a professional negligence claim – however, it is no substitute for expert legal advice in respect of your own individual situation. If you are currently seeking legal support on this topic then feel free to get in touch with one of our experienced professional negligence solicitors using the contact details below.

What is professional negligence?

Professional negligence occurs whenever a person advertises a certain skill as a service – such as a doctor, accountant, builder, solicitor, teacher, etc. – yet they fail to uphold their expected duty of care towards a client or customer. This may lead the client to suffer damages or losses as a result, which they can then look to address as part of a formal legal claim.

The nature of the duty of care the professional owes to the claimant will vary depending on the industry and the agreed terms of a particular service. Defining these terms is simple if there is a written contract or agreement between the professional and the client; however, there does not necessarily need to be a written agreement in place for a claim to be made against the professional’s implied duties of service or malpractice.

For example, let’s say a property surveyor informs a client wishing to buy a plot of land that the area has been granted planning permission. The client acts on this advice and buys the land only to find that there has been no agreed planning permission as they were informed. The client then has grounds to pursue a claim for professional negligence because the bad advice and false statements provided by the surveyor have caused them to lose a significant amount of money in purchasing the plot of land.

The specific experience of the person in question, whether they are a senior professional or newly qualified, does not affect the expected standard of work produced. If the nature of the work is somewhat ambiguous, or if there is a difference of opinion in the expected practice of their services, the professional must provide sufficient evidence that shows they have not breached their duty of care in any way.

What constitutes a claim for professional negligence?

In order to submit a successful claim for professional negligence, the claimant will first need to demonstrate that he or she was owed a specific duty of care by the defendant (the professional). They must then be able to show that they have suffered damages or losses because the defendant breached this established duty of care.

The specific circumstances of a claim – whether that’s the professional’s duty of care, the causation of the issue, or the damages involved – can often prove to be complicated, which has led to a large volume of case law records in relation to professional negligence. If the defendant has been negligent, but this didn’t cause the claimant any direct damages or losses, the claim will likely be deemed invalid.

It’s also important to be aware of the time limits in place for these claims, and to act swiftly if you decide to pursue legal action. For the majority of professional negligence cases, the case must be brought forward within six years of the initial date of negligence. It is possible for this time limit to be extended if there is sufficient evidence to show that the impact of negligence did not become apparent until a later stage. In this case, a claim must usually be raised within three years from the date of knowledge. In some cases, where claimants do not have the necessary knowledge of any lasting damage, there is a further long-stop time limit of 15 years for professional negligence claims.

Who can I claim against for professional negligence against?

The term ‘professional’ refers to any individual that advertises themselves as having skills or expertise as part of a particular service. In this sense, there is no real limit to the professions that can be claimed against, though claims are more commonly in relation to:

  • Accountants
  • Architects
  • Builders
  • IT professionals
  • Medical professionals
  • Solicitors
  • Surveyors

How long does a claim typically take?

As discussed, the process of submitting a claim for professional negligence can often be very time-consuming. Before issuing court proceedings, we advise that each claimant follows the professional negligence pre-action protocol. This protocol provides a useful template to document important information in the initial stages of a prospective claim, and is designed to allow the parties involved, both the professional and the client, to seek an effective resolution outside of court.

A central part of this process is composing a Letter of Claim, a document that lays out the facts of the case, the nature of the negligence and any specific allegations made against the defendant. Once the Letter of Claim has been received by the professional, they then have 21 days to acknowledge the letter and confirm receipt that they will be investigating the case at their end. The defendant then has three months to investigate the concerns brought against them and write a formal Letter of Response that either refutes or agrees with the claim, or makes initial provisions for a settlement out of court.

In the event of court action, it often takes longer than 12 months (particularly for more complex cases) for a case to go to trial after the initial summons have been issued.

Is court action necessary?

At Slater Heelis, we firmly believe that achieving an effective settlement outside of court is in the best interests of the claimant because it relieves the stress and financial cost involved with lengthy court proceedings. This is always our primary goal and it’s fair to say that the majority of claims are settled outside of court; however, we also know from experience that sometimes court action proves necessary as the only way to settle a dispute.

In any case, it remains vital for the claimant to bear in mind the cost involved with pursuing a claim and whether that outweighs any potential compensation that they stand to gain. If you believe you have grounds to lodge a claim of professional negligence, we recommend you act swiftly and seek the advice of a legal expert to evaluate the nature of the claim and support your decisions in pursuing further legal action.