What follows is a cautionary tale.
In Chief Land Registrar v Caffrey & Co  clients sent their solicitors a Form DS1 Land Registry discharge purportedly signed on behalf of their bank to discharge a mortgage.
It was a forgery.
The clients told the solicitors that the bank was represented by another firm of solicitors, but that was untrue too.
The solicitors did not contact the bank or the so-called bank’s solicitors to verify the DS1 or that the “bank’s solicitors” were actually instructed on it. They submitted the Form DS1 to the Land Registry with a Form AP1 to apply to delete the mortgage.
The Land Registry asked for evidence that the person signing the DS1 had authority to do so on behalf of the bank.
The client supplied the solicitors with a purported power of attorney seemingly appointing four individuals, including the apparent signatory to the Form DS1, as the bank’s attorneys.
The solicitors sent a certified copy of the purported power to the Land Registry. The Land Registry acted on the application, the copy power and the Form DS1, and removed the mortgage from the property’s land register.
Later Santander UK plc lent money on the security of a charge on the property.
When the original Bank discovered that it’s mortgage had been removed, it applied to reinstate it to the register, but Santander objected. A Land Registry adjudicator decided that the original bank’s mortgage should be reinstated, but ranked it after Santander’s mortgage. The original bank then sought and obtained an indemnity for it’s loss from the Land Registry. The Land Registry then sued the solicitors to recoup their outlay under that indemnity.
The first basis of claim was negligence for having assumed a duty of care to the bank and then having breached it. The Land Registry claimed to be subrogated, by Land Registration Act 2002, s 103, Schedule 8, paragraph 10, to that claim of the bank against the solicitors.
But the High Court Master pointed out that the solicitor was acting for the borrowers in the discharge of the bank’s mortgage, and not for the bank, which had conflicting interests. The solicitors had been told that the bank had its own solicitors and so had no reason:
– to think that the bank was relying on it in any way,
– to disclaim any duty towards the bank or,
– to advise it to take its own advice.
Nor was the bank unsophisticated.
The solicitors were never asked to act on behalf of the bank, and never thought they were doing so. They thought that the bank was independently advised. The solicitors were acting for the borrowers, not the bank. The borrowers were not giving instructions to the solicitors on behalf of the bank, but on their own behalf.
The actual act which caused the loss was the act of the Land Registry in removing the charge, not the act of the solicitors in supplying the information to the Land Registry. Facilitating the causing of harm by another person was only grounds for negligence liability in exceptional cases e.g. where someone supplies a dangerous object to, or creates a dangerous situation for, someone else who is known to be irresponsible, or where someone’s job is to take reasonable care to prevent someone else’s actions.
“A solicitor asked to do something for his or her client and against the interests of another person is necessarily doing something capable of harming the other person. If it is done carelessly, it may harm that person even more. But that hardly militates for imposing a duty of care.
The solicitors were responsible for submitting the documents to the Land Registry without making checks. But that is what they were asked to do and their clients could have complained had they not done that. That contractual duty was undertaken to the clients alone.
“The act (of submitting the documents without first making checks) would have been easy to avoid, but at the price of not acting for the clients, or at any rate of greater expense to the clients. Moreover, the bank also has another remedy, i.e. against the [Land Registry].”
Registered land was known to property lawyers and to others, at that time, to be insufficiently secure against that kind of fraud. That was not the solicitors’ fault. The real question was how the law should allocate the risks of such fraudulent activity.
The Land Registry claimed to be subrogated to the rights of the bank. So the issue was to be determined as between the bank and the solicitors. The solicitors had not designed or run the system and it was not fair just or reasonable to make the solicitors responsible to the bank for the risk of fraud within an inherently risky Land Registration system. So the claim failed so far as it was based on negligence.
The Land Registry’s second basis for claim was negligent misstatement i.e. that by completing and/or submitting the application to the Land Registry and/or certifying a copy of the purported power of attorney and/or supplying it to the Registry, the solicitors “expressly or impliedly represented to the Land Registry that they had taken sufficient steps or measures and/or knew of sufficient facts to satisfy [themselves] that” the discharge form had been properly executed, solicitors had been instructed, the power of attorney was valid, the bank wished to discharge the charge, and that the property was no longer charged in favour of the bank.
The Land Registry said that the relationship between the solicitors and the Land Registry was such that the solicitors “knew or ought to have known that the Land Registry would rely upon” those representations in dealing with the application to discharge the bank’s charge, and so “the [solicitors] owed to the [Land Registry] a duty to take reasonable care to ensure that the [representations] were true.” The Land Registry said the representations were false, that it had relied on them and that it had thereby been caused loss.
Unlike the first negligence ground where the Land Registry claimed to be subrogated to the rights of the bank, and the question therefore arose as between the bank and the solicitors, here the issues arose directly between the Land Registry and the solicitors.
The Land Registry had professional staff who might be expected to have systems for checking matters themselves. They did not just blindly accept whatever the solicitors told them.
However the High Court Master was narrowly persuaded that, on the peculiar facts of this case, the solicitors had assumed a duty to take care in the representations which they had made to the Land Registry.
So the Master gave default judgment to the Land Registry, on the second cause of action, for damages to be assessed.
This blog has been posted out of general interest. It does not replace the need to get bespoke legal advice in individual cases.