Email Auto Signatures Can Make a Contract Binding
Electronic signatures automatically generated on emails have the same legally binding force of law as a handwritten signature, a judge has ruled.
Sitting at Manchester Civil Justice Centre, Judge Pearce ruled signature blocks on email messages show the sender intends to connect their name with the message content.
Link to the judgment: Neocleous & Anor v Rees  EWHC 2462 (Ch) (20 September 2019).
The ruling followed a disagreement about a land sale in the Lake District. The sellers owned the land the buyer had to cross to access a jetty and wanted to register a right of way to allow him to get to his boat.
The seller suggested he buy the land instead of applying for the right of way and offered to sell for £200,000.
In a telephone call, the buyer agreed on the purchase for £175,000, which was agreed upon over the phone by the seller’s lawyer.
The seller’s lawyer sent an email outlining the agreement.
The message included him ending ‘many thanks’ and signing off with an autogenerated signature.
The buyer’s lawyer confirmed the deal, but the seller’s lawyer claimed the transaction was incomplete because both parties formally signed no papers.
The judge disagreed, explaining the generated signature block was as good as a written signature even though the lawyer did not add the information directly.
“The purported signature of the solicitor on behalf of the defendant was by automatic generation of his name, occupation, role and contact details at the foot of an email,” said the judge.
"Looked at objectively, the presence of the name indicates a clear intention to associate oneself with the email – to authenticate it or to sign it. “I am satisfied that he signed the relevant email on behalf of the defendant.”
The ruling cost the seller £25,000 as the court ordered she should sell the land at the agreed £175,000 instead of the asking price.
It is already accepted that electronic signatures are valid, and this case shows that an assured shorthold tenancy agreement can be validly created electronically.
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Landlords should be aware of the benefits of written tenancy agreements and the procedures necessary for obtaining such an agreement. Although a landlord can create many short-term tenancies (three years or less) without a written agreement, it is generally not advisable for landlords to allow occupation without first having secured a signed formal tenancy agreement.