You may think that because a firm has an email address, you can serve a writ or other legal document on them by sending it via email…and so you can, but not unless the firm has agreed to that.
It took a visit to the Supreme Court to resolve the issue in a recent case. The circumstances were simple. A man wished to serve a legal claim on a firm of solicitors. As is standard practice in such cases, the firm instructed another law firm to act for them. That firm emailed the man asking him to address all future correspondence to them. He emailed the claim to them without establishing whether or not they had agreed to accept service by email. He did not use a solicitor and was therefore not familiar with the rules that govern such legal actions.
For his claim to be validly served, it would have to have been delivered by 25 June 2013. On 24 June 2013, he sent the email containing his claim and ancillary documents and received an automated response. On 4 July, the firm wrote to the man saying that they had not agreed to accept service of the documents by email, so they would take no action with regard to the claim as the time limit for service had expired. They also informed the court of this.
The scene was therefore set for the dispute. Critical to its determination was the rule (in the Civil Procedure Rules – which govern the conduct of civil litigation) that documents may be served by email if the firm has supplied 'an email address set out on the writing paper of the solicitor acting for the party to be served but only where it is stated that the email address may be used for service'.
The District Judge rejected his arguments that his claim should be accepted as validly served because the solicitors had communicated with him by email and that allowance should be made for him because he was representing himself. The argument then proceeded to the Court of Appeal.
The man lost again. The Court was of the view that 'in circumstances where the claimant had done nothing at all other than attempt service in breach of the rules, and that through ignorance of what they were, there was no "good reason" to make the order' the man sought – a ruling by the Court that service of his claim was valid.
In a split decision, the Supreme Court also rejected the man's argument, leaving him carrying significant costs and no longer able to pursue his claim.