Warning after property case decided on email sign-off

Stavros Neocleous

A North West landowner has won a landmark ruling which proves you should always be careful what you put down in writing.

Stavros Neocleous was furious when he claimed a neighbour went back on a deal to sell a piece of land adjoining his property on the shores of Lake Windermere, despite it being agreed verbally and through a trail of e-mail correspondence.

Now, a judge has ruled on his side agreeing that even an automatically-generated electronic sign-off is a legally binding signature in the eyes of the law.

Mr Neocleous said: “A man’s word should be their bond and a handshake an agreement of a deal. I was furious when they back-tracked and decided to ask a court to decide. Happily the judge agreed.”

Following the ruling in Manchester County Court, he has now bought the land for the agreed price of £175,000 – but the seller faces legal costs which could wipe out much of the profit.

The land in question is just 20ft by 10ft and sits in front of the house Mr Neocleous has built and between his jetty and a row of boat houses.

He said: “It was overgrown with a dilapidated shed and I made what I thought was a fair offer. I just had to follow this through as a matter of principal more than anything else.”

He was represented by Daniel Wise from Manchester-based law firm Slater Heelis who believes the ruling should be a warning to land agents and consultants who often transact negotiations over e-mail.

He said: “It is generally understood that the formality in buying and selling land and property is concluded in writing and signed by both parties, more commonly known as ‘exchanging’.

“Despite there being no case law on whether an email sign-off counts as a signature for a property contract the court has, this week, found that an exchange of emails in a single chain with a name at the bottom is essentially the same as a hand-written signature on a paper contract.

“Property professionals, such as commercial directors and land agents, could be committing their businesses to deals simply by entering into email correspondence.

“I would advise anyone entering into discussions on the terms of a property sale to exercise extreme care over what they write in emails – always label correspondence ‘subject to contract’ and seek professional legal advice before discussing the terms of a deal in writing, otherwise they may be forced to complete on a purchase or sale they no longer want.”

He added: “It is another example of how the digital age is changing the nature of how business and transactions are completed and people need to be aware that the keyboard is as equally binding as pen and paper in the eyes of the law.

“We are already being asked to review a large amount of digital correspondence to check whether property contracts have actually been agreed in principle following the judgement.”