I signed what!? Recent decision on automated email signature as a binding signature

Following the recent publication of the Law Commission’s report on the electronic execution of documents, there has been a recent decision on whether or not an automated email signature constituted a signature for the purposes of the Law of Property (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1989 (which requires, amongst other things, any disposition in land to be made in writing and that it must be signed by each party to the contract).

The case dealt with an email exchange between solicitors agreeing terms of settlement which included the sale of a parcel of land by the Defendant to the Claimants in order to settle a dispute over the Defendant’s right of access over the Claimants’ land to access a parcel of land. The Defendant later appears to have changed their mind over transferring the land and the Claimants brought proceedings to enforce the email agreement.

The Court had to decide (having considered the recent Law Commission report) if a person’s name was applied to a document with “authenticating intent” or with the intent of giving authenticity to the document. The sender knew that their name and contact details would be automatically appended at the end of the email and they had also typed the words “Many thanks” as a sign off and then relied upon the automated signature to insert their name. The Court held that objectively the presence of the sender’s name in these circumstances indicated an intention to authenticate the document by associating his name with it and, therefore, it amounted to “signing” the email for the purposes of the 1989 Act. The Court accordingly held that the email exchange was a valid agreement under the 1989 Act and the Defendant was required to transfer the parcel of land to the Claimants.

With many construction contracts containing provisions that they can only be varied or modified in writing and that it must be signed by the parties (including NEC3 and NEC4), if you do not want a simple email agreement to potentially satisfy this requirement, you may want to clarify in agreements what is meant by “signed” by the parties. Although, with the recent Law Commission report this is unlikely to be the end of the story on electronic signatures.

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