National Feature: Put it in writing!

Carys Rowlands
Head of Professional Standards, RIBA

After an initial discussion, what’s the first thing that happens when you approach a lawyer for some advice or for representation? They draft a letter of engagement for you to sign and return before they carry out the work. What happens before you undergo an operation? You will be asked by your Doctor or Surgeon to read and sign your treatment plan and associated waivers. So why is it that so many architect-client relationships miss out this crucial step, or rely on piecemeal email exchanges to set out exactly what work is going to be undertaken, in return for what fee, and within what timeframes?

From 2018-2019, 26% of the RIBA’s professional conduct cases considered at a Hearing related to allegations of insufficient or non-existent terms of appointment; 25% of those Hearings resulted in RIBA Members being sanctioned for breaches of the RIBA Code of Professional Conduct. In a market place which offers high quality standard forms of agreement (https://www.architecture.com/riba-contracts), detailed guidance on the importance of terms of appointment (https://www.architecture.com/knowledge-and-resources/resources-landing-page/12-golden-rules-downloadable-resource) and where the standards of the regulator (https://arb.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Architects-Code-2017.pdf) and the professional body (https://www.architecture.com/knowledge-and-resources/resources-landing-page/code-of-professional-conduct) both require the existence of written forms of appointment, it is difficult to understand why so many architectural projects operate without written terms, which could avoid difficult and costly disputes.

This issue is particularly prevalent on domestic projects; commercial clients are perhaps more accustomed to detailed documentation and architects who are regularly engaged by commercial clients are similarly prepared. But when it comes to domestic projects, which have increased markedly in the last few months with remote working focussing people’s attention on improving their home environment, terms of appointment seem to be a blind spot for many architects. The recent correlation between an increase in domestic architectural projects and a more than 25% increase in the number of professional conduct complaints being received by the RIBA may be misleading, or may be the result of a multitude of factors; but as my team and I progress the caseload, what we see (or don’t!) is disappointing – a stark absence of any (or at least any adequate) terms of appointment.

With the construction industry often facing a lot of uncertainty, and with the challenges of coronavirus and Brexit looming large, it seems self-destructive not to bring certainty and clarity wherever possible and to make sure the basics are all done properly. I have often said that the sign of a good Professional Standards Team is that they are out of a job! If we can facilitate architects to learn from the mistakes of others (https://www.architecture.com/-/media/GatherContent/Test-resources-page/Additional-Documents/RIBA-Indicative-Sanctions-Guidance-2020pdf.pdf), to get the basics right and to use properly drafted forms of appointment, we can focus more time and energy on building the reputation of the architectural profession, driving up standards and shining a light on best practice.

Social links:

These are the views of the author and not of Barton Legal, and should is not to be treated as advice or guidance