Liability Risks from Helpline Advice

helplines, clinics, law firms, solicitors, negligence

Many firms provide free legal helpline or clinic sessions, often as a means of attracting new instructions or clients. Even if such services are provided free of charge, however, they will not be completely risk-free from the firm’s point of view. The extent of firms’ legal responsibilities in relation to a helpline or clinic session was examined recently in the Court of Appeal case of Carol Miller v Irwin Mitchell LLP [2024] EWCA Civ 53.

The case involved the serious injuries sustained by the claimant while on holiday in Turkey when she fell down some stairs in the hotel. She later phoned the helpline provided by Irwin Mitchell for advice on a possible claim against the holiday operator and received what was described as some “limited and high-level generic legal advice” on making a claim. The holiday operator had accepted responsibility for the actions of its suppliers such as the hotel but their contract with their insurers included written notice to be provided which they had not done. The claimant delayed in making a claim and by the time that she did so, the holiday operator had gone into liquidation, leaving her therefore without redress.

Whether the firm would be liable would depend on whether they had been negligent in not having advised the claimant to notify the holiday operator of her potential claim immediately. It was held that this would depend on whether the need to have done so would have been “reasonably incidental” to the advice provided, and then also whether it was reasonable for the claimant to have relied upon this non-contractual advice, and also whether the firm should reasonably have foreseen that she would do so.

In dismissing the appeal against the High Court ruling the Court of Appeal also held that advising a caller to notify the tour operator of the accident without delay could not be seen to have been reasonably incidental to the general advice provided and on the limitation period in particular. For the time being the issue of how this term should be interpreted remains unclear but it might be helpful to refer to this decision in respect of firms’ own law clinic guidance notes. If so doing it might be important to stress in particular that the firm will assume a duty in tort if not contractually for the advice provided to potential clients at any such outreach sessions.

On a related point, and in response to a couple of such enquiries that we have received from member firms of late, if the advice in such sessions is termed as an “occasional transaction” as opposed to the more common place “business relationship” there will be no need to conduct CDD when providing advice at any such sessions. Whereas there will always be a need to undertake CDD at the outset of any business relationship – defined as being client contact that will have an “element of duration” – there is only a need to do so in one-off advice situations that are occasional transactions where more than 15,000 euros will be involved or there is a risk of money laundering, both of which could be seen to be highly unlikely. If this exception to your normal arrangements would be helpful we would recommend that you amend your AML policy accordingly.

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