Supreme Court holds that service of notice attached to an email and transmitted by a third party not authorised to accept service was valid

In February 2012 the appellant, Westminster City Council, informed the respondent, UKI (Kingsway) Ltd, the company behind the redevelopment of a building at 1 Kingsway, that it intended to serve UKI with a completion notice under the Local Government Finance Act 1988 to bring the building into the rating list.

The building was managed by Eco FM, but Eco had no authority to accept service on UKI’s behalf. In March 2012, the Council delivered a completion notice by hand to the building. It was addressed to “Owner, 1 Kingsway, London WC2B 6AN”. It was given to a receptionist employed by Eco, who scanned and emailed a copy of the notice to UKI.

The issue for the Supreme Court was whether the completion notice was validly served on the date it was received by UKI, in circumstances where: (i) it was not delivered directly but passed through the hands of Eco’s receptionist, who was not authorised for that purpose by either party; and (ii) it was received by UKI in electronic, rather than paper form.

The Supreme Court noted that the means of service prescribed by the statute are not exclusive. Under ordinary principles, the real issue is whether the council “caused” the notice to be received by UKI. The involvement of a third party, i.e. the Eco receptionist, did not mean that concepts of agency or statutory delegation had to be considered. The Eco receptionist did no more than would reasonably be expected of a responsible employee in that position. It was the natural consequence of the council’s actions.

Further, causation did not depend on control. For example, where a notice is correctly addressed, but mistakenly delivered to a neighbour who passes it on to the intended recipient, there is no reason why that should not be treated as effective service under ordinary principles of causation, even though that neighbour is not under the control of either party.

Arguments about possible uncertainty were not persuasive, since some uncertainty in this respect is inherent in the legislation, in which neither the methods of service nor the dates of service in different circumstances are exhaustively defined.

As for electronic transmission, the Supreme Court noted that before the enactment of the Electronic Communications Act 2000, service by fax was valid. There was no good reason to distinguish transmission by fax from transmission by email. Parliament had to be understood to have legislated against that background.

The Supreme Court said that the purpose of the 2000 Act and Orders made under it was to provide a clear and certain basis for the routine use of electronic methods by authorities. That purpose was not undermined by a conclusion that under general principles, and on the particular facts of this case, the notice was successfully served by email. Therefore, the notice was valid and the property was correctly brought into the rating list. (UKI (Kingsway) Ltd v Westminster City Council [2018] UKSC 67 (17 December 2018) — to read the judgment in full, click here).