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How to take legal action against a professional service provider?

There are times when you have paid for a service which has not been delivered or the standard of service has fallen below your expectations. This can be especially damaging where you have paid substantial sums to a professional for a specialist service, such as a solicitor, accountant, or surveyor. You expect a level of service and when it is not fulfilled it can be difficult to know what to do. As a law firm dealing with these kinds of disputes it is something which we come across regularly.

There are a few steps which you should take if a professional does not provide the service at a level which you should expect:

  1. Obtain a full set of your files
  2. Make a formal complaint to the organisation
  3. Make a formal complaint to their governing body
  4. Seek advice on bringing a claim

1.  Obtain a full set of files

If you have paid your fees in full then you should be entitled to ask for a copy of your files.

This is a right you have under the contract you have with the firm (check the original terms and conditions sent to you).

Or you could make a Subject Access Request under Data Protection Act 2018 (there is now usually no fee and they must comply with this within 30 days).

2. Make a formal complaint to the firm

Once you have your files with supporting evidence, a formal written complaint setting out your grievances should be made to the firm in question.

All firms should have a complaints process explaining who you need to direct your complaint to and the timescale for responding.

3. Make a formal complaint to their governing body

If the firm does not respond or you are not satisfied with the response from the firm, then the next step would be to take it further to their governing regulatory body.

All professional and legitimate firms should be regulated and you can normally check this from their website or letters.

For example, for solicitors, you would complain to the Legal Ombudsman and/or the Solicitors Regulation Authority depending on the nature of your complaint.

4. Bring a claim

If the above steps all fail to give you a satisfactory outcome then you may consider bringing a claim in court against the professional.

This would be on the basis of a breach of contract and/or due to professional negligence.

To bring a professional negligence claim you would have to establish the following:

a) Duty of care – this would usually be very easy to show as you had a contract with them and paid them to provide a professional service

b) Breach – you must show that they did or did not do something that no reasonably competent professional would have or would not have done

c) Causation – most important you must show that the breach actually caused the loss you seek to be compensated for

d) Loss – you must show that there has been (financial) loss

You will also be obliged to show a court that you have taken appropriate steps to mitigate your losses (for example by seeking alternative professionals to complete the service).

The first steps would be to send a pre-action ‘Letter of Claim’ setting out important information including the 4 elements mentioned above.

You would then complete a claim form and issue this at court with a fee.

If you want to make a claim for a sum which is less than £10,000, then this would usually be allocated to what is known as the ‘Small Claims Track’ for which it is not usual for parties to recover any legal costs so you should think carefully about whether you want to enlist solicitors to assist or to prepare the claim yourself.

You should check your motor, home, contents and even credit card insurance to see if you have Legal Expense Insurance, because if you do, then these types of claims are usually funded under such a policy (subject to their terms and conditions).

Professionals are usually obliged to have indemnity insurance to cover such claims, but before embarking on any legal action, you should check that this is the case, unless you are sure that the professional has the means to settle any successful claim you make. Otherwise, a judgment in your favour is not worth the paper it is written on if you cannot enforce it.

Finally, do not delay in taking action. There are time limits for complaints to be made both to the firm and a claim usually needs to be made within 6 years.