What Is Professional Negligence?

emily gordon brown
Emily Gordon BrownLegal Assessment Specialist @ Lawhive
Updated on 29th January 2024

When you hire a professional, you trust they’ll perform their job with care and skill. 

Professional negligence is when a professional in a certain field who is expected to have expertise beyond that of someone outside their industry, doesn't meet their duty of care while doing their job.

what-is-professional-negligence

For example, imagine you hired an accountant to manage your finances. It's their job to make sure your taxes are filed accurately and on time. However, because of their oversight, they fail to submit your Self Assessment by the deadline. As a result, you get a penalty and fine from HMRC, leading to financial loss and stress. 

In this situation, the accountant breached their duty of care by failing to fulfill their professional obligation to file your tax return correctly and on time.  Their negligence resulted in tangible harm to you, in the form of financial penalties. 

The situation above could form the basis of a professional negligence claim against the accountant.

If you have experienced harm or financial loss due to a professional breaching their duty of care, you might have a case for a professional negligence claim, too. Read on to find out more. 

Professional negligence in UK law

In English law, professional negligence is a subset of negligence within common law (laws made by courts, not legislatures) that holds individuals responsible for failing in their obligations. This could involve: 

  • Breaking a contract term; 

  • Failing to provide the care expected by law; 

  • Violating fiduciary duty; 

  • Neglecting a duty imposed by statute. 

By law, clients or even affected third parties can take legal action against a professional who has acted negligently, recklessly, or provided a below-par service that directly resulted in loss or damage. 

What are the elements of professional negligence?

The four main elements of negligence in common law are: 

  • Duty - the legal obligation one party has to another; 

  • Breach - when someone’s actions don’t meet the expected standard’ 

  • Causation - when there’s a clear link between the breach and resulting damages; 

  • Damages - where the claimant has suffered some form of harm or loss. 

For someone to be held liable for negligence, all of these elements must be proven. 

Examples of medical negligence

Professional negligence can happen in industries and work situations where professionals are hired to do tasks for others. It can involve builders, financial advisors, architects, accountants, and many more. 

Here are a few examples: 

Breach of confidentiality by a solicitor

You hire a solicitor to help with your business's private matters. You trust them with confidential documents containing secrets about your business. But then, they accidentally shared some of those secrets with a competitor during a casual get-together. This mistake gives your competitor an unfair advantage, and you lose money and opportunities.

Data loss caused by IT errors 

Your GP surgery uses computers to keep track of your medical information. But one day, the computer system crashes, and all the important records about patients, like your medical history and test results, disappear. This means your doctor might not know what treatments you need or what medications you're taking, which could be dangerous.

Because of this computer mistake, patients could get the wrong treatments or even be harmed. 

Poor financial advice 

You ask a financial advisor for help managing your money. You share your financial situation, hoping for wise advice. Following their recommendation, you invest a big part of your savings in what they say is a great opportunity.

Unfortunately, the investment doesn't turn out as promised, and you lose a lot of money. It becomes clear that the advisor didn't do enough research or properly inform you of the risks. 

Failure to follow regulations and safety standards 

You hire a construction company to renovate your home. You agree on a timeline and budget, trusting them to do the job properly. However, during the renovation, the builder fails to follow building regulations and safety standards.

As a result, a structural flaw is overlooked, leading to a collapse in part of your home shortly after the renovation is completed. This negligence results in property damage, endangering the safety of you and your family. 

Incorrect medical treatment 

You visit a hospital for knee surgery but the surgeon mistakenly performs the procedure on the wrong knee. As a result, you undergo unnecessary surgery on one knee while the actual problem in the other knee remains untreated. This mistake leads to prolonged pain, mobility issues, and the need for corrective surgery on the correct knee.

What is the difference between negligence and professional negligence? 

Negligence occurs when someone fails to fulfill their duties or obligations, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Ordinary negligence, typically due to a careless mistake, refers to failing to meet standard care, leading to harm to others.

Professional negligence is similar but involves professionals and their clients, like lawyers or doctors. While ordinary negligence claims can be made against anyone, professional negligence is exclusive to professionals hired for their expertise and care. If they don't meet the same high standards as their peers in similar situations, they can be liable for professional negligence.

This is an important difference between ordinary negligence and professional negligence because, when you hire a professional, you expect them to provide a certain (i.e. higher) level of care because of their specific skills or knowledge.

What is the process of a professional negligence claim?

Professional negligence claims must follow the Pre-Action Protocol for Professional Negligence claims.

This usually starts with sending a Letter of Claim outlining the basis of the claim to the defendant. After receiving this, they have three months to respond or offer a settlement. 

Professional negligence claims will only go to court if the matter can’t be solved outside of it. If court proceedings do go ahead, it can be a lengthy process and both parties will be encouraged to use alternative dispute resolution, like mediation to try and end the dispute. 

In some professional negligence cases, the claim might be made to the Financial Ombudsman Service instead. 

What are the time limits for professional negligence claims? 

For professional negligence claims, the time limit to make a claim is usually 6 years from the negligence. But if you do discover it later, you have 3 years from the date you knew about it.

Limitation, however, can be complex, therefore it’s important to seek legal advice at the earliest opportunity if you’re aware of a possible claim.

What is the burden of proof for professional negligence? 

In professional negligence cases, the burden of proof lies with the claimant. They must demonstrate that the professional was negligent by proving:

  • The professional had a duty of care.

  • The professional didn't act reasonably or as expected in their position.

  • Losses or damages resulted from the negligence.

  • There's a reasonable belief that these losses wouldn't have occurred if the professional had acted appropriately.

How do you prove professional negligence? 

To prove professional negligence, you’ll need to show that the professional breached their duty to you or the contract you agreed upon. Further, you’ll also need evidence that shows the resulting loss or damage incurred. Potential evidence could include: 

  • Contracts; 

  • Emails or letters; 

  • Dates of meetings or conversations and what was discussed and advised; 

  • Photographs; 

  • Documents.

A solicitor, such as a personal injury solicitor, can help you collect evidence relating to your professional negligence claim and strengthen your case.

For more information about how Lawhive can help with this, contact our Legal Assessment Team today for a free case evaluation

How do you establish causation in professional negligence claims? 

In professional negligence claims, it's not just about showing a breach of duty; you must demonstrate that the breach caused your loss.

This involves proving both factual causation (the breach caused the loss) and legal causation (recoverable losses closely related to the breach).

While evidence may support this, it can be challenging to assess the value of a claim without legal guidance. Therefore, it’s a good idea to seek the advice of a solicitor to evaluate your claim before starting the process.

Can negligence lead to professional liability? 


Yes, negligence can lead to professional liability if a professional’s actions or failure to act causes harm or loss to someone. In such instances, they can be held responsible. 

Many professionals, like solicitors, accountants, and architects, have insurance to protect against such claims. This insurance covers things like incorrect advice, breaches of professional conduct, and loss of documents.

Usually, when an individual pursues a professional negligence claim, it is these insurance providers who pay the compensation for the defendant, whether the matter settles outside of court or with the help of a judge.

What should you do if you’re accused of professional negligence?

If someone accuses you of professional negligence, you might have to pay legal fees or close your business while dealing with the claim. In such instances, having the right insurance in place can help cover these costs and keep your business going. 

For example, professional indemnity insurance (PII) can cover compensation claims or legal fees if someone accuses your business of negligence. What’s more, professionals in fields like health and beauty can take out certain forms of insurance to make sure they’re protected in the event a client accuses them of not taking proper care of a client during treatment. 

How can Lawhive help?

We understand that businesses and individuals often rely on professional advisors. But when these advisors make mistakes, they need to be held accountable.

At Lawhive, our team of experienced litigation solicitors specialises in helping claimants succeed in professional negligence claims. Our first step is to seek early resolution, but we're prepared to litigate if necessary.

Most professionals have insurance to cover losses from negligence. For advice on costs and funding options, including no win, no fee arrangements, get a free case evaluation from us today.

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