An appeal court ruling may have delivered a serious body blow to solicitors offering unbundled services without being held liable for matters beyond those in their client retainer. Alison Kirby discusses the Patel judgment.

The term ‘unbundling’ is used to describe provision of a discrete act or acts of legal assistance under a limited retainer; for example, checking or drafting witness statements in litigation, but not being instructed to deal with the whole of the litigation. The difficulty with unbundling is that it carries more risk than acting on the traditional full retainer. Allegations of professional negligence or misconduct may arise from insufficient knowledge of the whole of the client’s situation. In addition, the client may not fully understand the limitations upon the unbundled services, in other words, what is or is not covered by the limited retainer.

At a time when the judiciary are giving clear indications that they want to see innovative offerings to reduce the price of legal services, the risks associated with unbundling should not be overlooked. A recent High Court judgment, Sequence Properties Ltd v Kunal Balwantbhal Patel (unreported) held that although a party was apparently acting without a solicitor on record, they had the assistance of a solicitor through ‘unbundled services’.

As such, a litigant in person was refused relief from sanctions for failing to serve the appeal bundle in time. The fact of the unbundled services is only part of the reasoning, but it is an unwelcome development in an area of legal uncertainty.

This judgment makes it unattractive for solicitors to offer unbundled services as it appears to suggest that a solicitor may be under a duty to advise the client of procedural requirements which fall beyond the discrete acts of legal assistance required by the client. As a member of the profession, I consider that professional accountability should be limited to the services that the client was willing to pay for.