Legal notices addressed to large governmental or corporate bodies have a way of getting lost in the post room. However, as the High Court emphasised in a social housing case concerning an alleged mice infestation, it is their responsibility to ensure that documents find their way into the right hands.
A social housing tenant instructed solicitors to mount a private prosecution of her local authority landlord under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 on the basis that the infestation amounted to a statutory nuisance. Section 160 of the Act required that a written notice of the intended prosecution be served no less than 21 days before the prosecution commenced.
Such a notice was sent by recorded delivery in good time and was addressed to the council at its head office. It was not, however, addressed to the council’s clerk or secretary, as suggested by Section 160, nor to any other individual with authority to deal with the matter. The letter was signed for by an unidentified person, using his first name only.
The council asserted that the notice never arrived with its housing litigation team so that it remained entirely unaware of the matter until it received a court summons. In those circumstances, a district judge threw out the proposed prosecution on the basis that valid service of the notice had not been achieved.
Upholding the tenant’s challenge to that outcome, the Court found that Section 160 is permissive, rather than mandatory, in its effect. The list of individuals it identifies upon whom documents might validly be served is not exhaustive. Valid service in compliance with Section 160 was achieved by posting or delivering a letter to a body corporate’s registered or principal place of business even if addressed solely to the body itself without further identification of an addressee.
That interpretation did not impose undue hardship on large bodies corporate, like the council, in that it was their responsibility to ensure that letters that do not identify an individual addressee by name or title are forwarded to the right person to deal with them. That principle applied however large or busy the body concerned might be.
The council was likely to receive much correspondence not addressed to individual members of its staff. There was nothing unduly unfair or burdensome in expecting it to have in place a procedure for opening or redirecting such letters and dealing with them appropriately. The Court concluded that the notice had been validly served and that the district judge erred in law in refusing to entertain the prosecution.