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Sign Here Please – Electronic Signatures and the Law

Whether your signature is an example of elegant calligraphy or of the scruffiest scribble, you have probably ‘signed here’ more times than you care to count. The 1677 Statute of Frauds required certain documents to be in writing and signed. This provision is still in force today.

But what of the documents being signed? Predications of the paperless office have become increasingly common over the past 100 years, particularly with the exponential growth of desktop and then mobile computing from the 1980s onwards. While a paperless business world is still, perhaps surprisingly, far from a reality, we are now closer than we have ever been before and think nothing of entire contracts being instantaneously transmitted from the other side of the world, ready for us to read on anything from a desktop computer to a smartphone.

Signing such a contract, though, often still catapults us back to 1677. Paper and biro might have replaced parchment and quill, but that all-important squiggle of ink on a physical page remains commonplace. Electronic signatures have been around for a while in various forms, but a question mark still hangs over them, particularly when it comes to important legal documents.

Clarification from the Law Commission

At last, clarification is at hand. Last month, the Law Commission confirmed that electronic signatures can be used to sign formal legal contracts under English law. Furthermore, the Law Commission has also confirmed that an electronic document is ‘in writing’ for legal purposes if it can be viewed on a screen in a legible form, and that deeds can both exist and be executed electronically.

Despite this, however, the Law Commission has said that there remains “a lack of clarity in the law” which is “discouraging businesses from executing documents electronically when it would be quicker and easier to do so”.

Law Commission Consultation on the Electronic Execution of Documents

With this in mind, the Law Commission has launched a formal consultation on electronic signatures and the electronic execution of documents. Specifically, the consultation seeks to:

“consider whether there are problems with the law around the electronic execution of documents and deeds (including deeds of trust) which are inhibiting the use of electronic documents by commercial parties and, if appropriate, consumers, particularly with regard to:

(a) Electronic signatures;
(b) Witnessing;
(c) Delivery…”

Following the consultation, the Law Commission will consider whether legislative or other changes are required to address these issues.

The consultation is open until 23 November 2018. Full details including a form to participate online are available on the Law Commission website.

Here at Simply-Docs, we are no strangers to electronic documents and if you’re here on our website, we suspect that neither are you. Do you distribute legal documents in electronic form? Do you use electronic signatures too, or do you prefer to execute documents using good old pen and paper? As always, we would love to hear from you in the comments below.

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