UK Supreme Court: indirect or electronic document serving is valid

Out-Law News | 19 Dec 2018 | 2:11 pm | 2 min. read

The UK Supreme Court has ruled that a document served indirectly or electronically has still been properly served in a dispute over the completion notice for a new property. It upheld an appeal brought by Westminster City Council.

Completion notices provide a mechanism for a new building, which is not yet occupied, to be brought into the ratings list from the date specified in the notice. There is then an assessment for non-domestic rates for which the owner, or eventually the occupier, is liable.

UKI was the freehold owner of a building in Central London. While the building was being redeveloped Westminster City Council delivered a completion notice addressed to the ‘Owner’ of the building, which was handed to a receptionist employed by the building managers.

The receptionist scanned and emailed a copy of the notice to UKI. UKI lodged an appeal against it on the grounds that it was invalid as it had been served on the building managers who had no authority to accept service of documents on the company's behalf , rather than the company itself.

The building was brought into the ratings list the following year but UKI said the entry should be deleted due to invalid service of the notice.

The five-strong panel of judges in Supreme Court judgment (17 page / 198KB PDF) ruled that the means of service prescribed by the rating provisions which the Council had not effectively relied on  were  not  mandatory and did not exclude other methods of service available under the general law. They existed merely to provide reliable methods of service which if adopted deem service to have been given and protect the party serving from non-delivery. The real issue was whether the council had caused the notice to be received by UKI – which in this case, it had.

The court said that ideally  the billing authority  should choose a statutory method of service which eliminates or minimises the risk of the notice not being correctly served. Although Westminster’s method of service in this instance was “far from ideal”, the court held that the Council had done enough to cause the notice to be received by the company.

The Supreme Court also said despite the “informal means” of service by email, this was allowed by law as it had not been expressly excluded as a valid method of service and “under general principles, and on the particular facts of this case, the notice was successfully served”.  

Property law expert Melissa Thompson of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind, said: "The case reaffirms the well-established principle that if the notice reaches the intended recipient it is often enough for service purposes provided there is nothing to the contrary specifying service is to be effected in a particular way. It reminds parties that it is always best to rely on the prescribed methods of service where possible, even if these are not mandatory, to remove risk associated with non-delivery."

"Despite traditional reservations about service by electronic means this can in some cases be effective where use of it is not expressly ruled out," she said.

The Valuation Tribunal had agreed with UKI but that decision was reversed by the Upper Tribunal. The Court of Appeal then overturned the verdict but the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the Council.