by Jeremy Malcolm, Internet lawyer
I recently received a question from a reader of this column, asking:
I would like to know what legal standing an e-mail communication has and in what way (if any), it differs to an original handwritten or typed document containing a handwritten signature.
For example, the legal standing of an e-mail message from business or government giving price detail or specific information about a product or service.
The starting point is that the law does not require most communications to be signed (or even to be in writing at all). The few exceptions to this rule include a person's will, an agreement for the sale of land, and a trust deed. Most other transactions and agreements can be formed verbally, or by email.
When dealing with government, the Electronic Transactions Act is a law passed in 1999 which gives the public the option of using electronic communications to deal with Commonwealth Government agencies. The policy behind this legislation is that electronic and hard-copy communications should be treated in the same way. Each of the State Governments has passed or will be passing equivalent legislation.
The right to deal with the Government electronically is not absolute. For some types of communication, the Government may require you to use additional measures, such as public key cryptography, to ensure the communication is secure (for example, businesses can return electronic BAS forms in this way). Also, some Government departments are exempted from this legislation and can still require you to deal with them using paper communications.
To deal with your example of pricing details received from government or business by email, there is nothing intrinsic in the way that it is sent that would prevent it from being as binding as a paper document. The only point to bear in mind is that email can be less secure than other forms of writing, so you may have a dispute on your hands if the sender claims the email was forged or interfered with in transit. Digital signatures and encryption can help overcome this limitation.