Email. Love it or loathe it, the email has become an integral part of our day to day lives, both personal and professional. Whether it’s the regular reminder that you signed up for a mailing list in 2012 to get a 10% discount on some (long since thrown away) footwear or integral communications about the running of your business, most people will each receive and send a great many emails each day. Indeed, technology market research company, Radicati reported that 281 billion emails were sent and received each day in 2018, with that number predicted to grow to 293 billion in 2019.
When sending emails in a professional context, it is very common for a signature block to be added to each email automatically, usually including your name, position, business and often a standard form disclaimer about viruses, bank details and the like.
However the High Court, sitting in Manchester, has recently decided a case that may change how we write (and sign off) emails.
At the heart of the case, Neocleous & Anor v Rees, was the question of whether an automatically generated email signature could amount to a signature for the purposes of an agreement for the sale of land. According to the relevant statute, such an agreement must be “signed by or on behalf of each party to the contract”.
The Court found that the seller’s solicitor’s email signature did amount to a signature for these purposes, and therefore there was an agreement for the sale and purchase of the land.
In reaching its conclusion, the Court dismissed the defendant’s arguments that email signatures are added to emails automatically, that the email signature doesn’t appear when the email is drafted and that a ‘signature’ should be hand written. Dealing with these points in turn, the Court decided:
- The signature is attached automatically – The use of the word ‘automatic’ was misleading; at some point the email signature was created with the intention to attach it to emails, so there was some conscious effort on the part of the solicitors to include that signature block.
- The signature doesn’t appear when you are writing the email – This will, of course, depend on each organisation’s email settings, but here it appears that the signature was only added at the point the send button was pressed. The Court found that most of the emails written by the solicitor were signed off with ‘Many thanks’ indicating that he knew the signature block would be attached and (as a consequence) he didn’t need to write his name at the bottom of every email.
- The signature was not handwritten – The Court ruled that the common understanding of words changes over time, and in its modern 21st century usage the word ‘signature’ is capable of encompassing electronic signatures within emails.
What could this mean for you?
It is always advisable to be careful when putting together an email. It is not contentious that email exchanges can give rise to contractual obligations and the immediacy of email correspondence makes it possible to reply in the heat of the moment. However, this judgment extends the scope of legal actions which can be carried out (potentially unintentionally) by a simple exchange of emails.
This case involved a sale and purchase of land (and the statutory requirement that such an agreement be signed), however in addition contractual clauses commonly require variations or waivers of rights to be in writing and signed by the party. At least in theory, such a clause could be satisfied by a simple one line email with a standard email signature.
What action could you take?
Many email signatures contain standard wording in relation to the sender’s authority to bind the company or organisation. In light of this judgment, it may be wise to revisit what you’re saying (or not saying) in your email fine print. We are yet to see how the Courts will interpret this judgment, but including some wording to clarify the purpose of the email signature may at least give you an argument should a regrettable email be sent.
More broadly, it is important that individuals within your organisation are aware of what they should and shouldn’t say by email. If nothing else, this case is a timely reminder that you shouldn’t say anything by email that you wouldn’t put in a formal letter, signed in wet ink.
If you have any questions about this article or if you have any questions about an ongoing or potential dispute, please contact our Dispute Resolution Team on 01603 610911.
Note: The content of this article is for general information only and does not constitute legal advice. Specific legal advice should be taken in any specific circumstance.