Legal disputes between neighbours frequently arise out of long-standing rivalries, moved boundaries, overhanging trees or loud music at antisocial hours, and are notorious for being fought with a bitter passion over matters that seem to be profoundly trivial to the impartial observer. Sometimes, though, such disputes can come out of a neighbour being too neighbourly. Going that extra mile for a friend can be a problem if it’s a mile in the wrong direction and a lack of a formal agreement between the parties doesn’t mean there is no legal responsibility. This is the strong message in the recent case of Burgess & Burgess v Lejonvarn decided earlier this year.
In this case, the parties were neighbours and Lejonvarn had provided architectural design services for the Burgess’s business on a professional basis on several previous occasions. Based on this, they accepted her offer to provide similar services informally and voluntarily for work on their own property when they decided to landscape their garden. Unfortunately, things went wrong and the Burgesses brought claims under both contract and tort.
Liability in UK law is divided into contractual and tortious claims. A contractual claim is based on a prior agreement under which both sides receive some manner of ‘consideration’ or benefit. A claim in tort, on the other hand, is based on the principle that everyone has a duty not to take action that would have a foreseeable negative consequence to others, whether or not they have an existing relationship with them.
Had the Burgesses engaged Lejonvarn with her professional hat on – to undertake the landscaping services in return for remuneration – her contractual liability would have been clear, and alleging the existence of such a contract was their first tactic when they brought the claim to court. However, the judge was unable to find sufficient evidence that any formal agreement had been entered into, or that Lejonvarn was intended to receive anything for her time, and rejected that part of the claim. (That Lejonvarn might have been paid for a later stage of the project was not enough to imply a contract.) Argument then turned to whether the provision of free advice and supervision left Lejonvarn open to tortious liability. Despite a number of arguments run by the defence, the judge found that the relationship between Lejonvarn and the Burgesses was sufficiently close to that of a professional and her clients to allow the Burgesses to succeed in their claim for losses arising from the work. Lejonvarn had “assumed responsibility” for the project, and was liable when it went wrong.
In the field of non-contractual relationships, Burgess v Lejonvarn is actually an extreme case – the project was planned out meticulously and there was considerable written evidence to suggest Lejonvarn was approaching it with a professional mindset. Where matters are muddier – such as where the party providing advice and services is not a professional in that line of work, but just an enthusiastic amateur, then the courts will likely have a difficult time deciding where to draw the line.
If you are involved in any dispute and require assistance then please contact Luke Patel on 0113 227 9316 or by email at “LPatel@LawBlacks.com”.