Northern Rock (Asset Management) Plc v. Jane Steel and Bell & Scott, 5 December 2014 – solicitor’s liability to client’s bank on erroneous discharge of security

Outer House case in which Northern Rock sought damages from the solicitor of one of its customers. Headway Caledonian Ltd borrowed sums from Northern Rock to finance the purchase of a Business Park in Hamilton. In return it granted a standard security in favour of Northern Rock. Some years later, Headway’s solicitor sent a draft discharge of the standard security to Northern Rock requesting that it sign and return the document. In the accompanying email, the solicitor stated that the company intended to sell the subjects and redeem the loan. However, that information was incorrect as Headway only intended to sell part of the subjects and to redeem part of the loan. (The reason for the error was unknown.)

Northern Rock (which had not instructed solicitors to act on its behalf in the transaction) relied on the email and granted the discharge of the standard security. The solicitor then registered it in the Land Register. As a result the loan became unsecured. Headway then became insolvent and the Northern Rock raised an action for damages against the solicitor and her firm in respect of its losses.

The solicitor argued that the lender was a third party to whom she did not owe a duty of care.

Lord Doherty agreed with that argument.

Whilst a solicitor on one side of a conveyancing transaction will not normally owe a duty to the party on the other side, the law will imply a duty in exceptional circumstances.

The crucial considerations this case were (i) whether it was reasonable in the circumstances for Northern Rock to rely upon the misstatements without checking them by seeking clarification from the solicitor and/or looking at their file; and (ii) whether it ought to have been foreseeable by the solicitor that Northern Rock might reasonably rely upon the misstatements without checking them, and thereby suffer loss.

In favour of the view that there was the requisite foreseeability and reasonable reliance were that the email (i) contained no disclaimer; (ii) had a degree of urgency in its tone; (iii) was communicated directly to Northern Rock, rather than to professional advisers; and (iv) that it came from a solicitor (a trustworthy source).

On the other hand, being a commercial bank, Northern Rock were in no sense vulnerable or dependent. They had the ability to obtain legal advice if they required it. Ultimately though, the critical information had been factual and concerned matters that could have been checked very easily and very quickly by Northern Rock.

Lord Doherty also took into account the fact that the erroneous information in the email conflicted with what had previously been agreed between Headway Caledonian and Northern Rock and that in some respects the email had been vague and ambiguous and, as such, “cried out for further clarification”.

The full judgement is available from Scottish Courts here.

(NB: see appeal to the Inner House here. See also the decision of Lord Woolman allowing the Proof here.)

All of our property and conveyancing case summaries are contained in the LKS Property and Conveyancing Casebook here.

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