"I see you're not talking - is this your ex-husband?"
"No, it's my ex-lawyer."
A court has ordered that a law firm pay £400,000 to a former client for failing to advise on her full entitlement in divorce proceedings.
Regional firm Cunningtons acted for Joanne Lewis in her divorce settlement, where she accepted £62,000 from her former spouse on a clean-break basis.
There had been no financial disclosure at that stage, and so the firm made no comment to Lewis as to whether the agreement was fair and reasonable, and asked Lewis to sign a disclaimer that she understood that point.
However, Lewis later brought a negligence claim for breach of duty, claiming that the firm should have advised her to apply for a share of her ex-husband's pension pot, potentially worth £1million.
Cunningtons argued that the scope of its retainer meant that it could not advise her fully without full financial disclosure, and that it had discharged its duty when Lewis chose to make a direct settlement negotiation with her ex-husband.
However, Judge Coe KC, in the High Court, said that Lewis was an unsophisticated client who had no knowledge of financial affairs. The court also found that Lewis had been bullied and intimidated by her former husband, and felt pressurised by him.
The judge said that Lewis was "desperate" at the end of her 23-year-long marriage, and her husband's police pension was the largest asset which the firm should have "actively considered."
"Any reasonably competent solicitor would have advised the claimant that the proposed settlement order was obviously and exorbitantly one-sided in the husband’s favour, giving the claimant less than 15% of the disclosed matrimonial assets and leaving her with an inadequate financial provision in the future, and particularly in retirement," said the judge.
Coe said the client was not offered sufficient advice about the reasonableness of the settlement and had been required to sign a disclaimer that her solicitors were not able to advise. This was a ‘clear’ breach of duty, as the firm had enough information to advise, even if in general terms, held the court.
The firm told RollOnFriday: "Cunningtons are naturally very disappointed at the outcome of this case. The firm does not believe the judgment is an accurate reflection of the firm or its practices, either generally or in this particular case".