High Court allows service of court papers by WhatsApp

Out-Law News | 11 Jul 2019 | 4:25 pm | 3 min. read

The High Court has allowed an individual to commence court proceedings in England against her former partner by serving him with the claim form via the WhatsApp mobile messaging service..

The case is thought to be the first to be reported in open court in which documents have been served using WhatsApp, according to the Telegraph.

Mandy Gray, who was born in the United States, began proceedings against Hamish Hurley in the English courts after the breakdown of their six-year relationship. The former couple have disputed the ownership of various properties, cars and investments purchased during the relationship. Hurley had already issued proceedings against Gray in the courts in New Zealand, where he was born and where he claims he now lives.

In his preliminary High Court ruling, Mr Justice Lavender found that Gray had a "good arguable case" that the English courts had jurisdiction in the dispute. Although Hurley is no longer resident in England, he did not return to New Zealand until March 2019 and England was "his last known domicile".

Private wealth and family disputes expert Sarah Ingram of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said that the case "provides a helpful overview for international individuals with worldwide assets on how to establish forum in the English courts".

"It also, again, demonstrates the willingness of the UK courts not only to accept jurisdiction over international cases, but also to allow new technologies to be used to achieve service – see, for example, the 'persons unknown' injunction case in the fraud context from last year," she said.

"In this case, the English High Court brought a collection of sports cars and £20 million in other worldwide assets belonging to an unmarried couple under its overarching jurisdiction, despite a claim having first been commenced in New Zealand and there being a contract for one asset with exclusive jurisdiction in Italy; and allowed for service of the claim form out of the jurisdiction by WhatsApp message."

Gray met Hurley, who at the time was a physical therapist at a gym in London, in 2013. They began a relationship shortly afterwards. Their relationship continued until 2019, during which time the pair enjoyed what the court described as "a lavish lifestyle", funded by Gray with some of the proceeds of her $120m divorce settlement.

Among the assets that Gray and Hurley purchased during their relationship was a property in Italy. The joint agreement relating to its purchase stated that "any dispute ... for termination" must exclusively be dealt with in Rome. Gray paid €9.5m for the property, and spent a further €9m on renovations. Neither party ever lived there. The couple purchased another property in New Zealand for almost NZ$20m (US$13.2m); along with multiple 'supercars', a yacht and large investments through a Swiss company.

The parties' relationship had broken down by 18 January 2019. On 25 March 2019, Hurley began court proceedings against Gray in New Zealand, a jurisdiction in which relationship property is usually divided equally. Gray issued her own set of proceedings against Hurley the following day in London.

Mr Justice Lavender delivered a preliminary judgment in the case, leaving the substantive matters in the dispute to be dealt with at a later date. First, he dismissed an argument by Hurley based on the 1956 case of Re Egerton's Will Trusts, in which the court held that the law of the husband's domicile should be used as a starting point in cases involving disputes over marital property. The judge said that this decision was a "controversial" one, which he did not consider "would be appropriate to extend ... to non-matrimonial relationships".

Although the judge concluded that Hurley had ceased to be domiciled in England by 26 March 2019, neither was he domiciled in New Zealand before that time. Gray was therefore entitled to begin a claim in the English courts "on the basis that England was [Hurley's] last known domicile".

The judge then went on to conclude that England "is clearly the appropriate forum for the trial of Ms Gray's claims".

"The parties and their dispute had a substantial connection with England, it was in England more than anywhere else that the relationship at issue was carried on and that Ms Gray entered into transactions or authorised payments (allegedly acting under Mr Hurley's undue influence and without intending to make gifts to him) and many (if not all) of the claims are governed by English law," he said. "No other forum appears to be suitable for the trial of the dispute as a whole."