Firms challenge new immunity guidelines

Roger Pearson reports on the pending Law Lords debate on the extent of immunity for lawyers against negligence claims.

The extent of the immunity of lawyers from suit is under preliminary consideration by the Law Lords. They are currently considering whether to grant four law firms leave for a challenge which could throw out new immunity guidelines. The case focuses on the circumstances in which immunity to the allegedly negligent conduct of a case when it is in court gives lawyers protection against claims for alleged negligence in out-of-court acts or omissions.

The firms at the centre of the case – Atkinson Dacre & Slack, Arthur JS Hall & Co, Ansell and others trading as Woolf Seddon, Scholfield Roberts & Hill – are seeking leave to challenge Court of Appeal findings on the point. The application has currently been put on hold by the Law Lords to give the respondents an opportunity to lodge objections against it going ahead.

In addition to the challenge relating to immunity, other questions will be raised in the appeal if it is allowed to go on. The Lords will be asked to decide whether if lawyers are not held to be immune, they are nevertheless entitled to immunity from negligence claims in respect of court approval of consent orders in any proceedings, and particularly in matrimonial proceedings relating to ancillary relief.

Finally, the case raises the question of whether in circumstances such as these, a damages claim against a lawyer for negligence in the run-up to the making of a consent order would be an abuse of the process of the court.

The Appeal Court, headed by Master of the Rolls, Lord Bingham, held that the actions complained of would not attract immunity if a full trial had occurred. The court ruled that in those circumstances it would be wrong for the lawyers to be entitled to immunity simply because the case had been settled and a court order had been made. And they held that there was no immunity where the actions complained of were not those normally carried out by an advocate and were not intimately connected with the conduct of the action.

Three of the allegations of negligence involve the handling of ancillary relief in divorce, while the other involves the handling of a building dispute.