Northern Rock (Asset Management) Plc v. Jane Steel and Bell & Scott, 19 February 2016 – solicitor’s liability to client’s bank on discharge of security

Inner 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.

In the Outer House Lord Doherty agreed with that argument finding that, in the circumstances: (1) it was not reasonable for Northern Rock to rely on the solicitor’s statements without checking them by seeking clarification from the solicitor and/or looking at their file; and (2) that it was not reasonably foreseeable by the solicitor that Northern Rock would rely on the statements without such checks.

The Inner House allowed an appeal finding that, in the circumstances, it was reasonably foreseeable that Northern Rock would rely on the solicitor’s statements and sign and return the discharges. Consequently the solicitor was to be taken to have assumed responsibility for her statements. The Inner House considered that Lord Doherty had not considered whether it was fair just and reasonable to impose a duty on the solicitor:

“As a consequence of the Lord Ordinary’s approach, he did not go on to consider whether the imposition of a duty of care would be fair, just and reasonable.  The context was, for the reasons I have explained, a background of assumption of responsibility and reasonable foresight of significant economic loss suffered by a bank in a sufficiently proximate relationship with a solicitor who had previously shown herself to be a trustworthy source.  The context was also, importantly, that that solicitor whilst acting outwith her mandate and instructions made a serious error and put in train a series of events which caused the bank to suffer significant loss.  What then of the fact that the loss could have been avoided if, having received the email which ought never to have been written and the attachments which ought never to have been sent, the bank had checked its file?  Does that mean that it would not be fair, just and reasonable to hold the solicitor liable?  I cannot identify any policy reason for doing so.  Nor can I conclude that that fact demonstrates that the solicitor should be relieved of liability.”

The full judgement is available from Scottish Courts here.


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