Electronic Signatures and Why They’re Well Worth Getting Excited About

We’re two decades into the twenty-first century and have access to all sorts of futuristic tools and tech to prove it. Tiny pocket computers known as smartphones? Check! Doorbells that can ping us on said smartphones however far we happen to be from said doorbells? Check! 3D printers that can print out actual heart valves? Check!

And yet… despite all these incredible and slightly unbelievable innovations, the old-fashioned signature still seems to have quitethe hold on us.

Why are signatures a problem?

Though the actual process of putting pen to paper might seem simple enough, there are plenty of scenarios when it isn’t. For one thing, in order to put your own personal scribble at the bottom of a document your solicitor has drawn up, you need to be physically in the same place as the original document.

There are all sorts of reasons why this might not be possible. You might live in a different city or country to your solicitor. You might be in hospital. You might find it difficult to get to your solicitor’s office due to a disability. Or you might be a very busy person living a very busy life and not really have time for meetings with your legal team, thank you very much.

In these cases, original legal documents often have to be posted back and forth. This adds extra time to the whole caboodle, as well as the added risk and uncertainty of important documents going walkabout in the post.

In short, traditional ‘wet ink’ signatures slow us down.

The crunch point

 The Land Registry’s insistence on wet ink signatures has been a bit of a sore point for years now, but, like many things, the Coronavirus pandemic brought it rather to a head.

Many conveyancing solicitors have spent this year working from home and/or limiting the number of face-to-face meetings they’re conducting. Though most aspects of the conveyancing process can now be done digitally, signatures were the one aspect that was causing a lot of head-scratching and consternation.

Something obviously needed to be done about this, and – to thankful cries of conveyancers up and down England and Wales – something wasdone!

On 4th May 2020 the Land Registry announced that they would accept documents signed using the ‘mercury approach.’

And on the 27thJuly 2020 they went one step further and announced that they would also accept electronically signed documents.

Both these signing options are now acceptable and will continue to be so: there’s no suggestion that these measures have been brought in only for the duration of the pandemic.

What are mercury signatures?

Before we go any further, you’re probably wondering what mercury signatures are when they’re at home.

Essentially, a mercury signature is when each party signs a hard copy of the contract by hand – with a witness – then either takes a photo or a scan of the document and emails it to their solicitor.

We assume that mercury signatures are named after Mercury, the swift messenger of the Roman gods (‘My Hermes’ have already claimed the Greek equivalent).

The benefit of mercury signatures is that solicitors and their clients don’t have to wait days for original documents to arrive in the post. However, this method does mean that clients have to actually print out a copy of documentation in order to sign it traditionally.

What are electronic signatures?

Electronic signatures cut out the need to have a hard copy of the document at all. This makes for much speedier action and is no doubt more environmentally friendly.

However, it’s worth noting that an electronic signature is not totally without hold ups. When you sign a document electronically, you do still need to do so in the presence of a witness. That witness needs to be in the same physical space as you: they can’t witness anything over video call.

This does still leave us with some issues in regards to managing conveyancing transactions during the time of lockdown, quarantine and self-isolation. Depending on your personal circumstances, the other members of your household may not be able to witness your signature on Land Registry documents. People who are under the age of 18 can’t sign documents, nor can other parties involved in the sale (i.e. if you and your spouse are buying a house together, you couldn’t witness each other’s signatures on the contract). If your spouse or civil partner isn’t involved in the transaction, they could technically witness your signature, though this isn’t recommended.

If you’re really in a bind, you might be pleased to hear that the Law Society released guidance earlier this year to say that signatures could be witnessed through a window. (They didn’t specify, but presumably the curtains would need to be open for this to take place).

Are truly digital signatures in our future?

Though electronic and mercury signatures are clearly a big jump forward, there is still space for improvement. There is growing hope that in the future organisations such as the Land Registry will accept truly digital signatures rather than just electronic ones.

Now, electronic/digital isn’t just a case of tomayto/tomarto. Legally speaking, they’re quite different things.

Unlike electronic signatures – which still need to be witnessed by another person – digital signatures can be done completely independently.

The software used to collect digital signatures is also able to check and confirm the identity of the person, which negates the need for a witness at all. This certainly makes the process more streamlined and may even reduce the possibility for misuse.

Moving forwards with your transaction

If you’re currently in the process of a sale transaction, the Land Registry’s acceptance of mercury signatures and electronic signatures may well solve a few logistical issues for you.

We’re on hand to advise if you need help navigating electronic signature software, if you’re not sure who to choose as a witness, or even if you’re self-isolating and need us to talk you through the uniquely 2020 process of window witnessing.

Happy signing!