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Pearless de Rougemont & Co (a firm) v Pilbrow

Mr Pilbrow asked for a solicitor the representation provided was a legal executive unbeknown to Mr Pilbrow after receiving poor service and advice and upon the realisation that he did not get what he asked for he refused to pay the bill the practice sued Mr Pilbrow and lost.

Pearless de Rougemont & Co (a firm) v Pilbrow

Before Lord Justice Butler-Sloss and Lord Justice Schiemann

[Judgment March 17]

Where a client who had telephoned a firm of solicitors and requested legal advice from a solicitor was instead advised by an employee of the firm who, unbeknown to him, was not a qualified solicitor, he was not obliged to pay the firm's bill, notwithstanding that he had been advised to the standard of a competent solicitor.

The Court of Appeal so held in a reserved judgment allowing an appeal by Stuart Pilbrow against the dismissal by Judge Lloyd on May 21,1998 of his appeal against the order of District Judge Robinson made on April 3, 1998 in favour of Pearless de Rougement & Co, solicitors, of East Grinstead.

Mr Pilbrow had asked the respondents for an appointment with a solicitor. He was told by the receptionist that he would see a particular employee, Mrs Carole Lee-Haswell but he was not told that she was not a solicitor, nor a qualified legal executive.

Mrs Lee-Haswell was not aware that Mr Pilbrow had specifically asked to see a solicitor, and so she never informed him of her status, nor was any client care letter sent to him. Mrs Lee-Haswell acted for him in his case, which he eventually lost.

Mr Pilbrow had paid £800 on account. However, he was dissatisfied with the quality of care he had received from the firm, and so refused to pay the £1,800 remainder of the bill. The firm sued for that sum.

In his defence, Mr Pilbrow stated, inter alia, that an express misrepresentation by the receptionist that Mrs Lee-Haswell was a solicitor had induced the contract which ought to be rescinded.

The district judge heard the case as an arbitration. He found, inter alia, that the advice Mrs Lee-Haswell had given was up to the standard of a competent solicitor and gave judgment for the plaintiff firm.

Mr John Critchley for Mr Pilbrow; Mr Richard Robinson for Pearless de Rougemont & Co.

LORD JUSTICE SCHIEMANN said that the firm should have trained its receptionist, when faced with a request to see a solicitor, to do one of the following:

(i) refer the client to a solicitor;

(ii) refer the client to someone who was not a solicitor but inform the client that that person was not a solicitor, or

(iii) refer the client to someone who the receptionist knew was not a solicitor, refrain from telling the client that fact, and alert the referee to the fact that the client had asked for a solicitor.

If the last course was adopted, then it would be the duty of the referee straightaway to make clear to the client that he was not a solicitor if that were the fact.

The receptionist here had done none of those things. In those circumstances, Mr Pilbrow was entitled to assume that the firm was putting forward Mrs Lee-Caswell as a solicitor.

It was not a defence for the firm to prove that (i) that the receptionist thought that the referee would make her status clear and (ii) that the referee had no reason to suppose that the client wanted a solicitor.

The crucial initial question was whether the contract between Mr Pilbrow and the firm under which the firm was suing for its fees was a contract to provide legal services or a contract to provide legal services by a solicitor.

The fact that Mr Pilbrow was under the impression that Mrs Lee-Haswell was a solicitor and that she did not know that was entirely attributable to the firm, the way its receptionist acted and the firm's failure to send an appropriate client care letter.

The firm had to take responsibility for that.

In the circumstances, the initial contract was one to provide legal services by a solicitor. The firm did not perform that contract at all. No legal services were provided by any solicitor. Not until all the legal services had been performed did Mr Pilbrow know that the provider was not a solicitor.

The case presented the old problem of deciding whether what had happened was defective performance of a contract or non-performance of a contract.

His Lordship was satisfied that the plaintiff firm had failed to perform their contract and that Mr Pilbrow was entitled to regard it as discharged by the firm's breach.

The case was not properly to be analysed as a case of defective performance of a contract of legal services by a solicitor. A firm of solicitors which was asked for a solicitor, and, without telling the client that the adviser was not a solicitor, provided an adviser who was not a solicitor should not be entitled to recover anything.

His Lordship would come to the same conclusion in relation to a case where a person went into a doctor's surgery, asked for a doctor and the receptionist referred him to a nurse who, thereafter, perfectly competently, handled his problems.

Those situations were not to be equated with situations where a drinker asked for a pint of one make of bitter but was mistakenly provided with a pint of another make and did not discover the difference until he had drunk the glass dry.

The appeal would be allowed.

Lord Justice Butler-Sloss agreed

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