Buyers and sellers using online estate agencies could inadvertently sign contracts if they carelessly use email signature blocks.
Blocks are the ‘auto-signatures’ containing contact details, which some individuals choose to put at the end of emails.
A law firm says the problem is highlighted by a recent case where a judge ruled that such a signature formed part of a legally-binding contract, costing a land seller £25,000 of the hoped-for sale price.
Zoe Stollard of law firm Clarke Willmott says the case sets a precedent that could impact sellers and buyers who deal with each other directly, as they often do when transacting through an online agency.
“Personal email signature blocks are becoming more and more popular as people seek to brand themselves and to create more of an online presence” says Stollard.
“However, if you’re buying or selling your home online … people should be aware of the perils of inadvertently signing a contract. If you use an online estate agent, you’re likely to be showing prospective buyers around yourself and both parties may well go on to communicate with each other via email” she comments.
“But they could find they’ve authenticated a contract by mistake – say for instance if they stated they wanted to buy the property at one point, and later changed their mind.”
Stollard cites the recent case of Neocleous & Anor v Rees, concerning a dispute between neighbours over a right of way.
His Honour Judge Pearce said the presence of the sender’s name on the email – even if it was automatically generated – showed he had a “clear intention” to associate himself with and authenticate it. He ruled that “the presence of the name indicates a clear intention to associate oneself with the email – to authenticate it or to sign it.”
Stollard says that this decision means terms or amendments to contracts agreed in email correspondence can now be binding if they contain email signatures, even if hard copies of the relevant documents are not subsequently issued.
“While the ruling shows progressive movement into allowing parties to create binding contracts without the need to circulate printed ink contracts, it also serves as a warning and sends a message of ‘sender beware’” she adds.
She advises all emails which contain terms or amendments to contracts should to carry “Subject to Contract” or “Without Prejudice” or other similar wording to demonstrate that the contents of the email are not intended to be binding.