Can a printed name at the bottom of an email be equivalent to a signature in law? In a case that broke new legal ground and will have widespread implications, a judge has answered that burning question in the affirmative.
A couple had been engaged in a right of way dispute with a neighbour concerning access to a scenic lake. Following negotiations with a view to settling the matter, a string of emails was exchanged between solicitors for each side by which the couple agreed to purchase a strategic plot of their neighbour’s land for £175,000.
The neighbour, however, subsequently denied that the emails amounted to a valid contract for the sale of land. That was on the basis that the critical email had not been signed in accordance with the strict formalities required in respect of such contracts by Section 2 of the Law of Property (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1989. It was submitted that only a signature in the email sender’s own hand, or a facsimile of such a signature, would have sufficed.
In ruling on the matter, the judge noted that, although the question of principle as to whether an automatically generated ‘footer’ at the end of an email can amount to a signature for the purposes of the Act had been discussed by academic authors, there was no direct legal authority on the point.
In the modern technological age, the judge found that such a footer was capable of being viewed by an ordinary person as a signature. The solicitor who wrote the email had clearly taken a conscious decision at some point to append his typed name and details to every email he wrote.
His intention in doing so was clearly to authenticate the contents of his emails and his inclusion of the typed words ‘many thanks’ just above the footer indicated that he was relying on the latter to sign off his name. The footer identified him with the email’s contents and was a sufficient act of signing to comply with the Act. The couple were granted an order of specific performance, requiring the neighbour to complete the land sale contract.