You may think that whether a document is signed or not would be obvious. However the High Court has recently looked at exactly this. Is an email with an automatic email signature, signed?

What is a signature?

The traditional definition of the word ‘signature’ is “your name written by yourself, always in the same way, usually to show that something has been written or agreed by you.” To sign, a person picked up a pen and inked a signature on to a page. With this, they confirmed that a letter or a document was their work or to their approval. However, all that changed with the development of technology.

Since the development of computers, letters and hard copy documents are slowly disappearing. Many businesses are switching to paperless or paper-light working environments. This means that even where the office receives hard copy documents, they transform them into digital form. Many accept a digital signature on a document as a suitable substitute for a physical signature and emails are the preferred method of communication

Neocleous v Rees

In the case of Neocleous v Rees the High Court looked at automatic electronic signatures at the bottom of emails. It ruled that an automatic email signature confirmed that the sender of that email associated itself with the contents of that email.

The case involved a dispute over whether a right of way existed over a piece of land. Prior to the final hearing of the case, solicitors acting on behalf of both parties exchanged various emails. They eventually reached an agreement on settlement of the case within this chain of emails. One of the solicitors, Mr Tear, sent the terms of that agreement via email to the other, Mr Wise. Mr Wise responded that he “confirm[ed] my agreement with its contents.” At the bottom of both emails were the solicitors’ electronic signatures.

Mr Tear later argued that, because he did not physically sign his email and it was automatically added, the previous agreement was not valid. The Court rejected this argument and said that an ordinary person would consider that by storing their details as an electronic signature they did so intending to sign every email.

Be careful!

We often take the ease and convenience of emails for granted. This case serves as a reminder to think twice about what is sent via email and what the implication of the contents could be. You may find yourself responsible for something you did not intend! If you have any concerns about a signature on a document, our dispute resolution team can help. Call us today on 0800 988 7756 for a FREE initial discussion.