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Electronic Commerce And Documents

The discussions on electronic commerce tend to centre themselves on issues regarding the validity or otherwise of digital or electronic signatures. In practice, within UK and common law this is not a great problem.

Instead we have a slightly different problem, which is to ask what constitutes a document. An example was given in the recent case of Victor Chandler International v Commissioners of Customs and Excise and another Times July 1999. This had several elements which are essential to electronic commerce.

The appellant conducted an offshore betting scheme which was available to English gamblers via teletext pages on a television channel. A gambler in England could access the page, make his bet. In practice and, it was claimed in law also, the transactions were outside the UK, and therefore not subject to UK taxation. The case is vital since, if I can gamble without paying tax on the stake I have an unfair advantage over other gamblers, and the exchequer will lose substantial sums.

The Commissioners and Customs and Excise men were struggling. Eventually their claim amounted to saying that the web page (or teletex page) was a document, and that system for the controlling of gambling controls such documents.

The result of the case was that the teletext screen was deemed not to be a document. It existed purely electronically, and, in effect, the court decided that a document must have some material existence, whether as paper or otherwise. The appearance of a screen did not constitute a document. Though whatever it was contained information, the information itself could not amount to being a document.

The Society for Computers and Law estimated (I doubt that they counted) as possibly some forty thousand statutes will, one way or another, require some part of the transaction to be either in documentary form or in writing or in some other forms of words with a similar effect.

We understand that the Australian government has taken a typically Australian and simple approach to the problem by suggesting that any requirement in legislation that for a document should be raised so that the provision could be set aside by its electronic equivalent.

NOTE: This case was appealed and reversed on appeal in February 2000.

Important: Please note that our law-bytes are retained for archival purposes only. The law changes, and these notes are often, now, out of date. You must take direct advice on your own personal situation and the law as it currently stands.
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