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Friends – a sequel to Neighbours?

In a landmark judgment in 1932 Lord Atkin defined the concept of duty of care in terms of what he described as the “neighbour principle”, in essence that, “you must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour.”  He answered the question, “Who then, in law, is my neighbour?” by saying that it was, “persons who are so closely and directly affected by my acts that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being affected … [by] the acts or omissions … in question.”

The neighbour concept has recently been applied to a case of friends where, in what a High Court Judge described as a cautionary tale, he found that a professional construction consultant owed a duty of care to her friends when providing her professional services to them free of charge.

The claimants sought £265,000 from their former friend after asking her to remodel the garden of their £5 million Highgate home.  They had originally received a quote from a well-known landscape gardener to carry out the work for which they had received a quote of £150,000 plus VAT.    They believed that to be too expensive and therefore sought the assistance of their friend, the defendant.

No formal contract was ever agreed between the parties and a fee was never discussed.  The defendant and her team of contractors began work but soon the parties became engaged in acrimonious exchanges of emails.  The claimants described her work as a disaster and said that the defendant had “muddled her way through the work hoping they wouldn’t notice or mind.”  Eventually the defendant was ordered off the job and the landscape gardener who had originally quoted was awarded the project.  Once the job was finished the claimants sued the defendant for some £265,000 being the difference between the actual cost of having the garden revamped (including remedial works necessitated by the defendant’s involvement) and what they were originally told it would broadly be the cost.

The Judge, who said, “in view of their former friendship and the fact that the services were said to have been gratuitous, the case serves as something of a cautionary tale,” ruled that this was not just a case of ad hoc advice between friends but that the defendant owed a duty of care to the claimants to perform her services with reasonable skill and care.  Having ruled on this issue, it was left for the parties to continue with their action to quantify the claim, although in concluding his judgment, the Judge said, “I cannot think of a more appropriate case to which mediation is suited.”

As the Judge said, a cautionary tale for professionals doing work for friends.  They may not just be friends but neighbours!

For further information contact James Staton on 01274 306 000.

About the Author

James Staton


James is a Partner and Head of the Dispute Resolution team and primarily handles commercial…

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