A grain company chartered a vessel to carry corn. A relatively junior company employee sent three emails, involving instructions for the vessel not to berth, from his individual email address at the company. Over six months later, a claims adjuster acting for the vessel owners sent a letter before action, in respect of the delay following the instructions, to the same email address. This was followed by correspondence initiating, and then dealing with, an arbitration against the company, both from the claims adjuster and the arbitrator, and all sent to the individual email address. There was no response and the company was unaware of the proceedings until it received the arbitrator’s award by post. It challenged the award, claiming the notice of arbitration had not been validly served.

The court drew a distinction between a personal email business address of an individual, and one which is generic. If an organisation has promulgated a generic address, whether on its website or otherwise, the sender can reasonably expect the person opening the email to be authorised internally to deal with its contents if the subject matter falls within the scope of the business activity for which the generic address has been promulgated. Whether an email sent to a personal business email address is good service must yield the same answer as if the document were physically handed to that person. This must depend on the role the named individual plays, or is held out as playing, within the organisation and the correct answer lies in applying agency principles. Companies can only act by natural persons and whether a company is bound by notification to an employee should depend upon the actual authority, express or implied, or ostensible authority, of that employee. The junior employee in question had no such authority and the notice of arbitration had therefore not been effectively served.

Glencore Agriculture BV v Conqueror Holdings Ltd [2017] EWHC 2893 (Comm)