A Court has ruled that a work email ‘signature block’ can be used to form a binding and legal contract – a decision which has cost a land seller £25,000.
The case arose from a property dispute in 2016 relating to a boat jetty and a plot of land at Lake Windermere.
The solicitor for one party sent a reply to the other side’s lawyers that agreed to a suggestion made during the contract negotiations.
The dispute centred on the fact that a jetty owned by Stavros and Kalliroy Neocleous could only be accessed by crossing Christine Rees’ land.
The Neocleous family attempted to register a legal right of way to cross Rees’ land, but she objected before it was agreed that she would sell part of her land to the Neocleouses.
The solicitors acting for Ms Rees emailed a reply to the lawyers acting for the Neocleouses in response to a suggested change to the contract. The email was sent with a standard footer, which included the lawyer’s name, name of the firm, their job title and contact details.
The emails stated an agreed price of £175,000 for the plot of land, which was agreed by the lawyers for the Neocleouses.
Unfortunately, the price was below the £200,000 that Ms Rees was holding out for, while her solicitor subsequently emailed all parties to state that the contract had not been finalised by the emails.
The court decision centred on whether the inclusion of a name in the email footer, legally counts as a signature.
Judge Pearce, sitting at Manchester County Court, said: “The purported signature of the solicitor on behalf of the defendant was by ‘automatic’ generation of his name, occupation, role and contact details at the foot of an email.
“Looked at objectively, the presence of the name indicates a clear intention to associate oneself with the email – to authenticate it or to sign it.
“There is good reason to avoid an interpretation of what is sufficient to render a document ‘signed’ for the purpose of Section 2 where that interpretation may have the effect of introducing uncertainty and/or the need for extrinsic evidence to prove the necessary intent.
“The use of the words ‘Many Thanks’ before the footer shows an intention to connect the name with the contents of the email.”
Erin Duffy, a Associate Solicitor with Palmers, who specialises in property disputes, said: “As this case illustrates, any written correspondence – whether in the form of traditional ‘hard copy’ documents or email exchanges – needs to be worded accurately and carefully in order to avoid misunderstanding or a dispute further down the line.
“Additionally, where a professional intermediary has failed to act in accordance with a client’s express wishes, resulting in monetary loss, there may be grounds to take legal action for professional negligence.”
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