Serve court papers - via Facebook

Court okays use of electronic means beyond e-mail if defendant cannot be reached in person

Lawyers said the judgment grounds showed how the courts have moved on the use of electronic means for substituted service. PHOTO: AFP

Court papers can be served through Facebook, Skype or Internet message boards on defendants who cannot be reached in person, the High Court has ruled.

The first reported case of such a ruling here goes a step further from previous clearance to serve suits via e-mail with the court's approval.

It happened last month in the case of a professional online gamer who was unable to serve court papers on an Australia-based company director being sued for copyright breaches.

" If the cornerstone of substituted service is efficacy at bringing notice, then a court must be open to substituted service through electronic means other than e-mails," said High Court Assistant Registrar Zhuang Wenxiong in his judgment grounds.

Substituted service refers to a method of delivering a court document to a person other than in person, such as by publication in a newspaper, posting to an address or via e-mail as approved by the court or authorised by statute.

There did not appear to be any local authority on service through Skype, Facebook and an Internet message board, the assistant registrar noted in explaining his grounds.

The court spat centred on a virtual planet, Planet Arcadia, within an enormous multiplayer game, the Entropia Universe.

Mr David Ian Storey, a professional online gamer and freelance software developer had sued Planet Arkadia, a Singapore firm that develops computer games, its managing director David Dobson and a third company director.

He is alleging copyright breaches of his works that were used both promotionally or in-game without his permission. He also claims there was a breach of contract.

Mr Storey obtained the court's permission to serve the court papers abroad, but was unable to serve them on Mr Dobson personally at his last known address in Australia.

His lawyers, Andy Leck and Cheah Yew Kuin, then applied to the court for substituted service through e-mail, Skype, Facebook and an Internet message board.

They provided evidence that Mr Dobson operated a Skype account, a Facebook profile and an Internet message board administrator account, in addition to two e-mail accounts.

The Skype and message board accounts showed he was very recently online and the court accepted this as the required evidence for allowing substituted service.

Mr Zhuang said the fear that using such means of service may not be effective in bringing notice to the person to be served "should not be overblown".

He added that the risk of not receiving notice in substituted service can be curtailed by the court imposing certain requirements.

He said the Rules of Court provided for substituted service to be effected through electronic means and other countries - such as Australia, Britain and South Africa - allowed substituted service through electronic means other than e-mail.

He added: "I construe electronic means to include WhatsApp and other smartphone messaging plaforms linked to mobile phone numbers. "

Lawyers said the judgment grounds showed how the courts have moved on the use of electronic means for substituted service.

"The judgment is a practical one that takes into account technological developments," said lawyer Choo Zeng Xi.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2016, with the headline Serve court papers - via Facebook. Subscribe