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Is Service of Documents by Email Valid? Supreme Court Says Yes!

Legal documents once had to be placed in someone’s hands, or at least mailed to his or her registered address, to be validly served. However, a Supreme Court decision of particular interest to property professionals revealed the law’s gradual acceptance of electronic means of service.

A local authority issued a property company with a completion notice in respect of a newly redeveloped building under the Local Government Finance Act 1988. The effect of that notice was that the building would be deemed to be completed and that it would on a particular date appear on the rating list and be subject to non-domestic rates.

The notice was addressed to the building and delivered by hand to a receptionist who worked for agents who were managing the building under contract with the company. The agents were not authorised to accept service of the notice on the company’s behalf, but the receptionist scanned and emailed it to the company. That was done before the date specified as the deemed completion date in the notice.

After the company challenged the notice, the Valuation Tribunal upheld its plea that it had not been validly served and was thus of no legal effect. That ruling was later reversed by the Upper Tribunal, but reinstated by the Court of Appeal.

In upholding the council’s challenge to the latter decision, the Supreme Court found that valid service by email had been achieved. The means of service prescribed by the Act were not exhaustive, and the real issue was therefore whether the council had caused the company to receive the notice.

In answering that question in the affirmative, the Court observed that, in emailing the notice to the company, the receptionist had behaved in a manner that could reasonably have been expected. The company’s receipt of the notice by email was the natural consequence of the council’s actions.

Giving guidance for the future, the Court noted that, even before the introduction of the Electronic Communications Act 2000, the law recognised the validity of service by now largely obsolete fax machines. The purpose of the legislation was to provide a clear and certain basis for the routine use of electronic methods by authorities, and Parliament could not have intended to make a distinction, without good reason, between service by fax and email.