A recent ruling by the High Court that an email containing an automated signature is legally binding proved costly to the lawyer who sent such an email on behalf of his client that included the wrong price for a land sale.
The unfortunate lawyer, Daniel Tear, who sent an email to another lawyer setting out the terms for an owner’s land/property sale (but with the sale price listed as £25,000 lower than the asking price) the ruling about his email signature at the County Court in Manchester proved to be very costly.
In the case, which related to a dispute over the sale of land near Lake Windermere listed as a “jetty/boat landing plot/mooring”, it has been reported that the land should have been offered for sale at the asking price of £200,000 but (according to published court documents) but Mr Tear’s email to the lawyer of those wishing to purchase the land specified a price of “ £175,000 (one hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds”.
The lawyer acting for the buyer accepted the deal, and despite Mr Tear later emailing all the parties to say the deal had not been finalised by email, the court ruling went against him and his client.
According to the published court documents which refer to matters related to certain sections of the Law of Property Act of 1989, Mr Tear’s auto-signature (using Microsoft Outlook) which appeared at the bottom of his email, accompanied by the words “Many Thanks” (which link the email’s contents to the signature) were enough to make the contents of the email’s agreement binding.
In a hearing which considered the many difficulties around an email footer possibly being treated as a sufficient act of signing the judge stated that he was “satisfied that Mr Tear signed the relevant email on behalf of the Defendant” and that “the Claimants are entitled to the order for specific performance that is sought”.
Mr Tear’s argument that the case fell under Section 2 (1) of the Law of Property Act of 1989 i.e. “The document incorporating the terms or, where contracts are exchanged, one of the documents incorporating them (but not necessarily the same one) must be signed by or on behalf of each party to the contract” was, therefore, not accepted by the court.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
As with most legal matters, if you read the court documents (here: https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2019/2462.html) there were many different considerations based around the case. One thing that businesses can take away from this case, however, is that if you create and add an email signature section to the footer of your Outlook emails, even though it is automatically added to each of your emails, it may still prove to be enough to legally bind you to the contents of the email, even though you may have made a mistake. It goes without saying, therefore, that businesses need to be very careful to check that prices and quotes emails to clients (where an email signature is included) are correct and that any terms are clearly stated. This ruling could now and in the future have implications for many businesses in disputes relating to the contents of business emails.