A major cause of disputes occurs over the content of agreements. Sometimes these disputes are a result of poorly drafted contracts; content and deliverables not being adequately described; or as a result of variations to the original contract. Another source of dispute is verbal contracts and conversations where the parties dispute the content of what was agreed upon.
Both verbal and written contracts are, in general, legally binding. However, sometimes writing is unavoidable and is a formality for the contract to be valid, for example: the sale of immovable property, antenuptial contracts, wills and executory donations. Along with the preceding list, all documents that have to be submitted to and registered with the Deeds Office must also be set out in writing.
Written contracts have various advantages, among others, they:
- ensure that both parties are fully aware of the contents of their agreement;
- create transparency between the parties;
- create and maintain trust between parties;
- can stipulate formalities that must be met for validity; and
- serve to avoid unnecessary disputes.
The Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002 (“ECTA“) recognises electronic messages (or “data messages“) as the functional equivalent of writing, meaning that data messages have the same legal validity as content written on paper. This results in any formality requiring writing to be met when the information is in the form of a data message. ECTA, however, imposes a requirement of accessibility to accompany data messages by requiring data messages to be easily accessible to the parties thereto.
The validity of electronic messages was confirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeal (“SCA“) in November 2014 in the case of Spring Forest Trading v Wilberry (Pty) Ltd. The court held that variations to an agreement between the parties made via email were binding – the arguments put forth were that the variation to the agreement was required to be made in writing and signed by both parties in order for it to be valid and that this requirement had not been met because the variations were only discussed and agreed to via email. The court stated that the email signatures at the bottom of the emails amount to signatures and that the email messages constituted writing in terms of ECTA.
Written contracts are always recommended. The rationale being that oral agreements offer no objective or clear record of the details of the agreement and the specific terms are often difficult to establish when a dispute arises. Well drafted agreements should include useful information and guidance to the parties to ensure a fair and smooth resolution of disputes or disagreements. The guidance information should address when parties may cancel the agreement, what constitutes breach and how the breach should be remedied.
Written agreements should also set out that any changes to the agreement are not valid if they are not in writing (and signed by both parties) – which prevents disputes over any amended terms of the agreement. This also prevents quarrels of a “he said, she said” nature as everything has been recorded. As set out above, this can be done via email or other electronic messages, including Whatsapp, for example, however, the name of the sender must be signed at the end of the message for it to be valid.
It is important to understand that following the abovementioned judgment, parties to a contract should specifically refer to an “advanced electronic signature” – which is a special signature provided for in ECTA – being required to amend the agreement if the intention is for the usual email type correspondence not to effect an amendment to the agreement.
Remember, you could be bound to a contract where you have willingly signed it even if you have not yet read it.
- electronic communication is legally binding and is the equivalent of writing;
- some agreements can only be altered if the variation is in writing and signed by both parties;
- some agreements must be in writing and signed (and sometimes commissioned or notarised) in order to be valid and binding; and
- oral agreements are binding (but not advised!).