I lost £4k due to my solicitor’s mistake when I bought a house in 1988… can I get it back now?

I’ve had a problem with a home I bought in the past, and wanted to know how long you have to make a claim when a mistake has been made by a solicitor.

In my instance it dates back to a property I purchased in 1988. An extension had been built by the previous owner.

Although they got planning permission, there was a covenant in place that meant they should also have got permission from the landowners – a local family estate – before any work could be done.

This reader’s dispute dates back to 1988: the year when Who Framed Roger Rabbit was one of the highest-grossing films and Kylie Minogue’s debut album topped the charts. Can he still resolve it now? 

My solicitor in 1988 didn’t pick this up, so I was unaware of the issue until I came to sell the property in 1999, when the covenant was picked up by the buyer’s solicitor.

This resulted in me having to disclose the extension to the landowner, and paying a fee and costs of around £4,000 in order to sell the home.

The solicitor I used for the sale of that property started proceedings against my original solicitor on my behalf.

The original solicitor disputed it instead of passing it on to their insurers. The solicitor I was using then went out of business, and owing to my personal situation – I was going through a divorce at the time – it never got pursued.

Is it far past time for me to attempt another claim against the original solicitor involved in the purchase? Is there anything else I can do? E.B, via email

Helen Crane, This is Money, replies: You contacted me after I wrote this article about the pandemic housing boom potentially causing a surge in costly legal errors, as conveyancers worked flat-out to help their clients meet the stamp duty holiday deadline.

Having read about the potential for professional negligence claims to be brought against conveyancers if their mistakes resulted in the homeowner losing money, you wondered whether this might still apply to you.

It has been a long time since you bought the home in question – in this case more than three decades.

However, you only discovered the mistake that had been made 11 years later.

At the time, you accepted the £4,000 fee for getting retrospective permission from the landowner, even though it had been the previous owners of the home who had built the offending extension.

An extension built without the proper permission cost this reader £4,000 in fees

An extension built without the proper permission cost this reader £4,000 in fees 

This was because you did not want to disrupt the sale or put off the buyer that you had already found.

You did start legal proceedings afterwards, but after your solicitor went out of business, life got in the way and the claim was never pursued.

Now, you are wondering whether there is still any chance of some recourse.

I asked Naomi Findlay and Stephanie Reeves, solicitors at law firm Irwin Mitchell, to explain the claims process for professional negligence and how long complainants have to do this.

They said: English law sets out certain time limits for bringing civil claims. These time limits are set out in the Limitation Act 1980.

For claims involving negligence, the general rule is that the claim must be issued at court within six years from the date of the negligence.

The date of the negligence in this context is likely to be the date on which you exchanged contracts to purchase the property in 1988, which was the last opportunity for your original solicitor to advise you in relation to the covenant.

This would mean that, if your original solicitor negligently failed to advise you in relation to the covenant on the property in 1988, you would need to have issued a claim against your original solicitor by 1994. 

There are, however, some exceptions to the general rule. 

For example, the limitation period may be extended where the claimant only became aware of certain facts relevant to the negligence at a later date.

In such cases, the limitation period is the later of either (i) six years from the date of the negligence; or (ii) three years from the date the claimant knew or ought to have known about the negligence.

This exception is subject to a 15 year longstop date. This means that a claim cannot be pursued more than 15 years from the date of the negligence, even if the claimant only becomes aware of the negligence after that period.

Applying the above exception, on the basis that you became aware of your original solicitor’s negligence in 1999 when you sold the property, you would need to have issued a claim against your original solicitor by 2002.

Even if this were not the case, the 15-year longstop would operate here to statute-bar your claim now in any event.

The maximum time limit for making a legal claim against a solicitor, for example if they have missed something important in a contract, is 15 years

The maximum time limit for making a legal claim against a solicitor, for example if they have missed something important in a contract, is 15 years 

It is important to note that, whilst the Limitation Act 1980 imposes deadlines on when a claim may be issued at court, it does not prevent parties from engaging in correspondence about the dispute.

As such, it may still be possible for you to write to your original solicitor with a view obtaining reimbursement for your losses.

Your original solicitor is very likely, however, to rely on the provisions of the Limitation Act 1980 in order to avoid payment.

The applicable limitation period in claims such as this always depend on their particular facts. 

We recommend that all readers seek independent legal advice before seeking to pursue a claim.

Helen Crane, This is Money, replies: Unfortunately it does not look likely that you will be able to claim back the fee in this case.

Under the law, the maximum amount of time you would have had to make a claim would be 15 years, and that deadline is long since past.

While you could try contacting the solicitor you used back in 1988 to ask for redress outside of the courts, they are likely to refuse payment on the basis that no legal action can now be taken.

However, perhaps you will take some heart from the fact that yours may serve as a cautionary tale for today’s home buyers, who might notice conveyancing mistakes over the next few years.

They must take action either less than six years after the negligence had occurred, or less than three years since they became aware of the negligence. 

And if they did not notice the negligence straight away, they are still limited to 15 years after the negligence to make a claim, regardless of when they noticed it.

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