Email Read Receipts: The Postal Rule in the Electronic Age

Only last semester, I had a slight mix-up regarding my project submission where my professor did not receive the mail containing my project despite it being in my sent folder. By the time I realised that he hadn’t received it, it was too late.  It was that what got me thinking about read receipts. A read receipt is basically an intimation that your sent email was read by your intended recipient. This could be immensely helpful to people who send material that would generally require a reply on the part of the other party. I for one can attest to that. Imagine sending your internship applications with the read receipt turned on. You’ll know exactly when they read it and you’ll no more have to suffer the torture of wondering whether they actually haven’t had time to look at your application yet or are simply ignoring it. However, the aim of this post is to examine if these would be of any assistance to us in the legal profession.

One basic and very old principle in Contract Law is the postal rule. It basically goes on to say that an offer will have been deemed to be accepted as soon as the acceptance letter is posted and not when it actually reaches. The judge in the case of Adams v. Lindsell, where this principle was first established mentioned that this rule was because of a matter of convenience as otherwise the other party would have no way of knowing if their acceptance had reached unless the offerer intimated him and this would result in an endless chain of acceptances being sent. Obviously this case was way before we had technology that enables instant transmission of messages. In the present day, we see that email has increasingly become the most accepted manner of communication, especially in business matters. Hence, a confirmation that the intended recipient had read the sent communication may have the potential to seriously alter the outcome of a judgement. A common defence taken in cases sometimes is simply of ‘I didn’t know’. As we know, ignorance of fact has tilted several cases in the other direction.  Let us investigate this further.

Around the time the Information Technology Act was passed, there were Amendments inserted in the Indian Evidence Act to allow electronic evidence to be admissible in courts. Consequently it has been established by the courts that emails and SMS are admissible as well. Hence we can probably accord the same status to read receipts as well. While we have not had any cases regarding this yet, a UK court in April in the case of Greenclose Limited v. National Westminster Bank had held that had a read receipt been sent it could have been proven due care on part of one of the parties.

In my view, the concept of a read receipt is similar to that of ‘registered post’ as we know it in the Indian postal system. You’ll probably send all your letters in the regular mail but your special ones, such as applications and legal documents are registered. Why? To get the satisfaction that the recipients can’t deny receipt later on, that’s why (for the most part, at least). Every lawyer worth his salt sends all his notices and RTI applications by registered post despite knowing about the Postal Rule. The only reason for this is practicality. In our country lawsuits are generally the last resort, even for lawyers as they are known to be cumbersome. A confirmation of a receipt helps a lot in avoiding one. Hence as I see them, they would not quite change the way lawyers look at evidence, seeing that the postal rule still stands even in electronic communication but the innate security that it gives one may well be reason enough to use them.

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