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Contract

Electronic Signatures in Property and Other Transactions

By | Contract, Property, Wills and Estate Planning

“To sign a document means to authenticate that which stands for or is intended to represent the name of the person who is to authenticate” (quoted in the case below)

We all know that verbal agreements, although fully binding for most types of transaction, are a recipe for uncertainty and dispute. It’s not just a question of trust – even if no one is deliberately dishonest about what was agreed, innocent misunderstandings are common. We have a natural tendency to hear what we want to hear and to remember what we want to remember, and a properly-drawn written agreement avoids that.

So even when a written and signed document isn’t required it is always wise to insist on one. Note that the parties themselves can require a document to be in writing and signed. Or it could be required by law – the most common examples of the latter are property sale agreements, wills, suretyship agreements, ante-nuptial contracts, and credit agreements (there are other less common examples – take professional advice in doubt).

But that’s not always easy to achieve, and the COVID-19 lockdown in particular has highlighted the challenges of getting everyone together for an old-fashioned original “paper and ink” signing session. Even when social distancing is no longer required and ceases to be the norm in society, the convenience and benefits of being able to sign documents remotely (whether you and the other party/ies are in different houses, cities, countries or even different continents) are obvious.

Firstly, when is a digital agreement “in writing”; and can property sales and wills be electronic?

Fortunately our law, in the form of the ECTA (Electronic Communications and Transactions Act) recognises the general validity of digital documents. A “document or information” is “in writing” if it is –

  • “In the form of a data message; and
  • Accessible in a manner usable for subsequent reference.” 

As a result, perfectly valid and enforceable agreements are now often entered into online, by email, WhatsApp and the like. 

Note that there are some specific exceptions where a physical (“wet ink on paper”) as opposed to an electronic format is still required – most commonly property sale agreements, “long” (10 or more years) leases and wills (there are others – take advice in doubt).

Secondly, is “signature” always required?

Formal “signature” isn’t always essential as the ECTA provides that if the parties to an electronic transaction don’t specifically require an electronic signature, “an expression of intent or other statement is not without legal force and effect merely on the grounds that –

  • It is in the form of a data message; or
  • It is not evidenced by an electronic signature but is evidenced by other means from which such person’s intent or other statement can be inferred.”

Thirdly, how can you sign a document electronically?

Where “signature” is required, the ECTA recognises the concept of “electronic signatures” (defined as “data attached to, incorporated in, or logically associated with other data and which is intended by the user to serve as a signature”. They are valid except in cases where either a law (like the laws relating to property sales etc mentioned above) or the parties themselves require actual physical signatures.

An electronic signature can take many forms. Where it is required by the parties but they haven’t agreed on a particular type of electronic signature to be used, it is valid if –

  • “A method is used to identify the person and to indicate the person’s approval of the information communicated; and 
  • Having regard to all the relevant circumstances at the time the method was used, the method was as reliable as was appropriate for the purposes for which the information was communicated.”

That definition will often be wide enough to include names on email messages, scanned images of physical signatures and the like. But remember the parties can specify what formats are and aren’t allowed, plus our courts may well look at all the circumstances of a case and decide for example that an actual manuscript signature is required even when transmitted electronically (see for example the “R804k” judgment discussed below).

“Advanced” electronic signatures

This is a concept of authentication designed to make an electronic signature more reliable and it is used when a law requires signature for specified documents or transactions but doesn’t require another particular type of signature.  

For example the Deeds Registries Act requires documents like the Power of Attorney to Transfer Property to be signed, and that can be done either physically or electronically – but if electronically the electronic signature must be an advanced one. The Credit Agreements Act provides other good examples. 

Even when not specifically required, a big advantage of advanced electronic signatures is that they are presumed to be valid. That means anyone attacking one would have to prove its invalidity and not the other way round.

Security and fraud; with an R804k example

Cyber criminals are as always waiting to pounce so all the normal warnings in regard to electronic communication apply here, with the added need to ensure that electronic documents cannot be altered after completion/signature. 

A recent example of “forged electronic signatures” is an online fraud that went horribly wrong for a firm of financial advisers who were sued for R804,000 when their client’s Gmail account was hacked by fraudsters – 

  • Using the investor’s authentic email credentials, the fraudsters sent three emails to the financial advisers instructing them to transfer a total of R804,000 to the fraudster’s accounts. Two of the emails ended with the words: ‘Regards, Nick’ while the third ended with ‘Thanks, Nick’.
  • The financial advisers made the transfers and the investor sued them on the grounds that they had paid out contrary to the written mandate he had given them which stipulated that ‘All instructions must be sent by fax to [011 *** ****} or by email to [***@***.co.za] with client’s signature.’
  • The financial advisors argued that they had complied with the mandate in that the email endings “Regards, Nick” and “Thanks, Nick” were valid electronic signatures in terms of ECTA.
  • The SCA (Supreme Court of Appeal) however upheld the High Court’s ruling that the financial advisors were liable. They had not complied with the mandate which “requires a ‘signature’ which in every day and commercial context serves an authentication and verification purpose … The word ‘electronic’ is conspicuously absent from the mandate …  The court below cannot be faulted for concluding that what was required was a signature in the ordinary course, namely in manuscript form, even if transmitted electronically, for purposes of authentication and verification.”

Play it safe – have your lawyer draw and manage your agreements for you to minimise this sort of risk, and ask also about using an external service provider for secure, authenticated and verifiable electronic document signing and storage. If you do come to blows with the other party down the line, the integrity and evidential value of your electronic documents and signatures could be make-or-break.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Leases, Contracts and COVID-19: What is Force Majeure?

By | Contract, Litigation, Property

The COVID-19 crisis has changed everything. Our personal lives have been upended and our businesses hit hard. 

And with many businesses operating out of leased premises, a great many landlords and tenants are asking themselves what happens if the crisis leaves a tenant unable to pay the agreed rental. 

What follows is of necessity a general guide only – professional advice specific to your case is essential here.

Tenants – your risk

As always “With Great Change comes Great Opportunity”, but if you aren’t able to very quickly find and exploit a viable new opportunity you may well struggle to pay your rental. 

Don’t just stop paying rental! Failing to pay rental on time means breaching your lease, and if you do that you face cancellation, legal action for recovery of outstanding rental, damages claims for breach (substantial if your lease has a long time to run and your landlord struggles to re-let) and calling up of your personal suretyships (exposing you to loss of all your personal assets, house etc). 

Bottom line – take professional advice before you just stop paying!

Landlords – your balancing act

As a landlord you have a very delicate balancing act – on the one hand you won’t want to lose even half-reasonable tenants at a time when finding new ones is going to be problematic. One wonders for example how many small businesses will now either fail entirely or be forced to cut costs. And how many others, having had an enforced period of “working from home”, will now be reconsidering the whole concept of leasing separate office space at all. 

On the other hand of course you need to cover your ongoing costs, which probably means enforcing payment of rent. That in turn means understanding your legal position – for example does your tenant now have an excuse to cancel the lease without penalty? If so, you lose a tenant without recompense. But if your tenant is still bound by the lease, you are free (if you wish – long-term support of your tenant may still be your best option) to demand full payment, then to reduce your losses by cancelling, evicting, executing against the tenant’s assets and calling up personal suretyships. 

What about “force majeure” or “impossibility of performance”? 

Force majeure” (a French legal term meaning “superior force”) is an event, either due to “natural causes” (earthquakes, cyclones and so on) or to “human agency” (war, riots, legislation and the like) that makes it impossible to comply with the lease. 

We really are sailing into uncharted waters here with worldwide debate over whether or not this pandemic is indeed a case of force majeure. There is bound to be a great deal of litigation before we can be certain whether or not the crisis (particularly the declaration of a national state of disaster and the lockdown period) will be accepted by our courts as a “force majeure” event. If it is, many tenants will argue that their failure to pay rental is not a breach of lease but rather a lease-destroying “supervening impossibility of performance”. 

So where do you stand? There are two main scenarios to consider –

  1. What does the lease say? The onus of proving a force majeure is on the tenant trying to escape from the lease, and the first thing for both parties to check is what the lease says.

    Many leases have a clause that deals with a tenant’s inability to occupy premises as a result of damage to or destruction of the premises which won’t apply here, but some leases do have specific force majeure clauses. If yours has such a clause you are bound by whatever it says so check whether a pandemic or government order to cease business might fall under the clause, and if so what results and remedies are specified.

  2. What must the tenant prove if there is nothing in the lease? If there is no force majeure clause in your lease, our common law applies. Your problem here is that there are a lot of grey areas involved and every case will be different, so what follows is just a general and non-exhaustive guide.  

    A tenant would have to prove not only that the impossibility caused a loss of beneficial occupation (entitling the tenant perhaps to a rebate of rental for the lockdown period, or perhaps frustrating the lease altogether) but in all probability also that it is –

  • “Unforeseeable with reasonable foresight”. In this regard we may well hear arguments along the lines of “the emergence of the coronavirus and its impacts were neither unexpected nor improbable”. Could such an argument prevail? Only time will tell.   
  • “Unavoidable with reasonable care”. 
  • An absolute as opposed to a probable impossibility. “The mere likelihood that performance will prove impossible is not sufficient to destroy the contract.” 
  • An absolute not a relative impossibility. “If I promise to do something which, in general, can be done, but which I cannot do, I am liable on the contract”.   
  • Not the fault of either party. “A party who has caused the impossibility cannot take advantage of it and so will be liable on the contract.”   
  • The “contrary common intention of the parties” could override the defence of impossibility. Consider any representations made by either party to the other that may be relevant.

Moreover our courts have held that “In each case it is necessary to ‘look to the nature of the contract, the relation of the parties, the circumstances of the case, and the nature of the impossibility invoked by the defendant, to see whether the general rule ought, in the particular circumstances of the case, to be applied’.”

That’s all fertile ground for expensive and draining litigation, at a time when neither of you is likely to have an appetite for either. 

Which brings us to…

A practical template for negotiation

Take this advice from Roman lawyer and statesman Cicero over two millennia ago: “Agree, for the law is costly”. 

So if you are a tenant, rather than just stopping rental payments and then having to fight it out through the legal system, ask your landlord to agree to a win-win compromise that will limit both short-term and long-term damage to your respective businesses.

Draw up a checklist including matters such as –

  • Do you or your landlord have any sort of insurance cover for this sort of disaster?
  • If you want to cancel the lease entirely, consider whether, if the protections of the Consumer Protection Act are available to you (see below*) it might pay you to give your 20 business days’ notice and pay the “reasonable cancellation penalty” the landlord is entitled to demand. (*You need to take advice on this – leases between “juristic persons” such as companies and trusts in particular are excluded from this particular protection).
  • Alternatively consider what you can offer the landlord to accept your cancellation without a fight. 
  • If you want to continue in the premises, make sure that your failure to pay on time is specifically recorded as not being a breach of the lease.
  • Decide whether you will ask for a full rental holiday, or a rental reduction. For how long? The better a tenant you have been, the more incentivized your landlord is going to be to help you stay in place. Offering an extension of the lease – if it ties in with your long-term planning – could help a lot with that.
  • If you run into a brick wall there, think of proposing that the arrears not be written off but rather just be deferred until your business is back up on its feet. Specify when payment of arrears will be made, what if any interest will be charged and so on.
  • If the tenant is a corporate entity and you signed a personal suretyship for it, don’t forget to specifically cover that aspect in your agreement. 
  • Remember to include in your agreement what happens to any deposit the landlord may be holding from you.
  • If you agree on a new or amended lease, think of including a professionally-drawn force majeure clause (or check an existing clause for possible update). 
Beyond leases – force majeure and contracts generally

Although this article specifically addresses landlords and tenants, the general principles of “force majeure” and “impossibility of performance” apply to all contracts and might in some cases entitle you to delay or avoid contractual obligations beyond lease agreements. Take professional advice specific to your circumstances!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Watch What You Say on WhatsApp – The Case of the R20m Lottery Win and the R1m “Offer”

By | Contract

“Engage brain before hitting send” (Anon)

WhatsApp comes with a host of business and personal benefits, and its use is growing exponentially here as in the rest of the world. Which brings us to a possible downside – binding yourself to a legally-enforceable agreement without really meaning to.

First principles: Offer + Acceptance = Contract

What makes for a binding contract? In the most simplistic sense, all you need is for one person to make an offer and for another to accept that offer. 

There are of course many other requirements – consensus ad idem (‘true agreement’ or ‘meeting of minds’), lawfulness, capacity to contract, compliance with any formalities, certainty of terms, possibility of performance and the like. Lawyers and legal academics love to wax lyrical on the finer ins-and-outs of these and of related concepts like “quasi-mutual assent” (more on that below, it’s actually an important concept), but the core principle applicable in the vast majority of cases remains this: Offer + Acceptance = Contract.

And of course, with only a few exceptions (such as property sales, wills and ante-nuptial contracts), even verbal agreements are fully binding, and the binding effect of electronic messages has been established both by legislation (most importantly the ECTA or Electronic Communications and Transactions Act) and by a series of modern court decisions.

A R20m lottery windfall and a R1m WhatsApp “offer”
  • A father was paying R1,000 p.m. child maintenance to the mother of one of his seven children.
  • Shortly after becoming the lucky recipient of a National Lottery windfall in the form of a prize of R20.8m, he  met with the mother, told her that his health had deteriorated, that he could no longer be employed (by SARS) and that he would get about R600,000 in pension benefits.
  • He offered R100,000 out of these pension benefits in full and final settlement of his child maintenance obligations, which the mother accepted and which was paid to her for the child’s benefit.
  • At a meeting with the maintenance officer he denied having won R20m but the mother, after getting proof of his win, sent a WhatsApp message to the effect that she knew about it. He replied – also on WhatsApp – “if I get 20m I can give all my children 1m and remain with 13m.I will just stay at home and not driving up and down looking for tenders”.
  • The mother sued the father for R900,000 on the basis that he had contracted to pay her R1m and had only paid R100,000. The father denied liability, saying that his WhatsApp message was just to “get rid of” the mother and that he had no intention to make an offer to contract.
When is an “offer” not an offer? The “intention to contract” factor

The mother won in the High Court but lost on appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), which held that the father wasn’t bound because on the facts his message was a denial of having won R20m and it “related what [he] could possibly do in the hypothetical future event of him receiving R20 million. It set out what the [he] might do if he received R20 million … the message clearly did not contain an offer that could on acceptance thereof be converted into an enforceable agreement.”  

On the facts of this case, the father “subjectively had no intention to contract and the message did not suggest otherwise.” His “morally reprehensible conduct” lost him his claim for legal costs, but it did not affect his lack of intention to contract. So in this case our WhatsApping father is off the hook and gets to keep his R1m.

But… before you hit send

On slightly different facts his WhatsApp message could easily have been held to have been a valid offer, binding him on acceptance. For example, the concept of “quasi mutual consent” which we mentioned above, means that even if you don’t actually intend to make a binding offer, our law can hold you to it if your actions or conduct lead the other party “as a reasonable person” to believe that you did intend to enter into a contract. So you may not intend your message to be a real offer but if the recipient reasonably thinks it is, you are in trouble.

The lesson for us all is this – all users of electronic communications, whether via WhatsApp, Facebook, email or any of the many other electronic messaging channels open to us, face the very real danger of inadvertently making a promise in haste which down the line a court will hold us to.

Think before you message!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Your Written Contract Should Cover Everything – No Oral Evidence Allowed!

By | Contract, Litigation

Here’s another warning from our courts to make sure that all your contracts are properly drawn to reflect both accurately and fully what you have agreed to.

The problem with leaving anything out – or agreeing to something that isn’t then fully recorded in your contract – is a principle in our law known as “the rule of parol evidence”. 

A recent SCA (Supreme Court of Appeal) decision illustrates the rule in action, and the facts will resonate with the many farmers, businesses and city dwellers facing empty dams in drought-stricken areas…

The water diviner and the “insufficiently yielding” borehole

  • A fruit farm/wine estate accepted a quote from a contractor to drill a borehole.
  • The contractor, having successfully used his water divining skills and over 20 years’ experience to locate a good drilling spot, quoted to drill on the basis of his standard “No Water, No Pay” policy. The farm accepted the quote with a modification requiring a drill to 70m (or 100m if no water was found at 70).
  • The resultant 76m deep borehole yielded some 4,000 litres of water per hour – something which, as the Court put it, “would put a smile on the face of most farmers in this country”. 
  • Nevertheless, and despite the borehole “gaily being used by the [farm] to irrigate its orchards”, the farm refused to pay the drilling contractor a cent, arguing that the water yield was insufficient to meet the contractor’s agreed obligations.
  • One long (and no doubt expensive) legal battle through the courts later, the fight ended up before the SCA.
  • One of the farm’s defences to the claim (and the one relevant to this article) was its (hotly denied) insistence that the contractor had guaranteed a minimum water supply of 10,000 litres per hour.  

Oral evidence disallowed – it’s the written contract that counts

  • Bad defence, said the Court. A guarantee of water yield “is not what the agreement says, and to find that there was agreement on such a guarantee would breach the rule of parol evidence which prescribes that where the parties to a contract have reduced their agreement to writing, it becomes the exclusive memorial of the transaction; and no evidence may be led to prove its terms other than the document itself, nor may the contents of the document be contradicted, altered, added to or varied by oral evidence.” (Emphasis supplied). 
  • On that basis “the considerable volume of evidence led by both sides in regard to their negotiations and what their intention had been was all clearly inadmissible”. All that mattered was that the contract specified that payment was due if the borehole produced water and wasn’t “dry” – its actual yield was irrelevant.
  • The farm also tried to rely on the “partial integration rule” whereby, when a contract is partially written and partially oral, evidence can be led to prove the oral part of the agreement. But, held the Court, that rule cannot be used to “contradict or vary the written portion” of the agreement – which is exactly what the farm was trying to do. 
  • End of that argument, so the farm must pay its borehole bill in full, plus legal costs.

The bottom line – make sure your contracts cover everything both clearly and comprehensively!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews