In the hope of reducing my email burden, I have been considering something like the service here. The process works as follows:

  • Person A sends email to Person B
  • Person A receives automated message saying something along the lines of "Your email has not been delivered yet. Please verify your email address by confirming on the below link to prove your message is now spam"
  • Person A completes the request and receives an email saying that their address has now been added as a recognised address for future communication with the address they were writing to
  • Person B receives the message

My question is, what would the legal standing be in cases where the sender itself may be an automated mailing address or the person does not verify their email address? In such scenarios, the intended recipient would never read the message and would be unable to respond. I am thinking of examples such as:

  • Legal letter that requires responses within fixed a fixed time period
  • Important governmental message

Legal methods of service in most jurisdictions are:

  • hand delivery to the person
  • hand delivery to the person's last known address
  • post to the person's last known address
  • other methods of service where there is evidence of receipt.

This can all get very technical: for example, a document placed under a company's door is not legally served unless it is entirely under the door or a document served on a Queensland council's offices was not served because it was not served on the CEO. On the other hand, service by Facebook has been held to be legal service because there was evidence the account had been accessed and the document opened.

Email is generally not accepted as legal service without evidence of receipt; this is partly traditional and partly because the way email operates, although generally very reliable, is not foolproof. Technically it is possible for an email to be undeliverable. When that happens the last server sends a response saying this, however, this is also an email and may not itself be delivered.

From what you describe, unless and until the sender gets evidence that the email has reached your account, legally, it hasn't.

Of course, that doesn't help you much when the lights go off because you didn't pay your electricity bill.

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I'm going to assume that, in your examples where legal documents and governmental documents are being served via email, you have provided your email to the sender with the understanding that you may receive email from them.

In general, unless the form and method of communication is regulated by a specific law, a court will consider whether or not a reasonable effort has been made.

This may, for instance, consider the importance of the message, and other channels of communication that have been made available to the sender.

If Person B provided no other method of communication, and the email was one at which they have said that they would be contactable, then it is unlikely that a court would find an attempt, even without verifying their email address, to be unsatisfactory.

Compare this with another situation where Person B has provided their email address, postal address, and phone number. While an email might suffice for informational communication, something that requires action would likely require a more exhaustive attempt.

It is likely to be that, if email is offered as a medium for contract offer and acceptance, it occurs when a communication is sent, rather than received. This is consistent with the formation of contracts via post. However, if email is not offered as a medium for contract acceptance, then acceptance occurs when the email is brought to the recipient's attention, rather than when it is sent. This is a largely untested area of law, with few cases to create precedent. Some jurisdictions have laws that make this explicit.

In short:

  • If service of a document is expected by email, service is considered to occur and be received when the email is sent, regardless of when it is actually received.
  • Otherwise, it is considered to be served when it is brought to the recipient's attention.
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