Walsall firm's appeal court victory halts flood of cases against lawyers

A HIGH street law firm is celebrating a Court of Appeal victory in a case which threatened to open up solicitors to a barrage of costly litigation.

The Walsall firm Cox McQueen was sued by Midland Bank following a mortgage scam. The bank had arranged for the solicitors' firm to witness the signature of a man's wife on a mortgage deed. The woman who signed the document, it later emerged, was not the man's wife.

Philip Bellshaw, partner at the firm, now called Cox McQueen Howard Tain, says: “This was an important case for the profession as a whole.

“Had we lost it would have opened the floodgates to lots of future potential claims against the profession, in that every time something went wrong the solicitor would be held responsible for any loss sustained by the bank or building society.

“We basically said we did what we were asked to do. A woman came and we witnessed the signature. We had no reason to believe any fraud was going on. Essentially we would be acting as an insurance policy if every time something goes wrong we had to pay up.”

The firm charged £23 for witnessing the signature, but legal costs will now have run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, says Bellshaw.

The decision followed a challenge by the Midland Bank of a 1997 High Court ruling, which had dismissed a £200,000 breach-of-contract claim.

The bank argued that Cox McQueen failed to carry out instructions to obtain genuine signatures on the mortgage documents and was liable for the mortgage being rendered void when it was discovered that the signature was forged.

The bank was left unable to enforce its security and sued Cox McQueen.

However, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf, in the appeal court dismissed the Midland's appeal.

He said if banks wanted to impose an absolute liability on solicitors to police transactions, they should do it in clear terms so that solicitors fully understood their obligations.

He said mortgage transaction work was carried out by small firms of solicitors which were already finding it difficult to remain viable.

If they were made liable for damages payments, they would either have to withdraw from providing those services, or would have to change their rates, he said.

“Neither result is in the interests of the bank or their customers or the public,” he said.