January 30, 2015

A £9 million lesson in the power of proofreading


Taylor and SonsTaylor and Sons Taylor_and_Sons_3179506cSpelling is really important, guys. When you’re a civil servant, spelling is especially important when you’re writing out the name of a company declaring bankruptcy. One son or two sons; the presence or absence of a mere “s”; these may seem like trivial differences, but, well, no.

It was a 124-year-old Welsh family business which took five generations to build up, yet a blunder over a single letter was all that was needed to cause its collapse, leaving the Government with a £9 million legal bill.

A High Court ruling has found Companies House liable for the demise of Taylor & Sons Ltd, after they erroneously recorded that the Cardiff engineering firm had been wound up.

In fact it was another, entirely unconnected, company – Taylor & Son Ltd – which had actually gone bust.

By the time Companies House, an executive agency of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, tried to correct its mistake three days later, it was already too late for the Cardiff engineering firm.

“They [Companies House] had already sold the false information to the credit reference agencies,” said Philip Davison-Sebry, 57, former managing director and co-owner of Taylor & Sons Ltd.

Taylor & Sons’ clients read the news and freaked out, canceling contracts and dooming the company. Three days in 2009 was all the time that missing “s” needed to get onto the internet, enter the gossip stream, and kill a company over a century old.

Taylor & Sons should sue! They did, and they won. A judge ruled that Companies House was legally responsible for the firm’s unhappy fate. Damages have yet to be awarded, but lawyers acting for Davison-Sebry have valued the company’s claim at £8.8m.

Nine million quid for an ’S’? That’s like the most high-stakes game of Scrabble ever. Indeed. Companies House argued that what happened was extraordinary and could not reasonably have been foreseen, but the judge thought different.

The judge, who it seems has an eagle eye and no patience for typos, wasn’t hearing the government agency’s excuses.

The judge pointed to the fact that this is the only comparable blunder ever recorded on the companies register, saying: ‘That can only be because it was easy to avoid.’

Julia Fleischaker is the director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.