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https://hmlandregistry.blog.gov.uk/2020/07/09/electronic-signatures-in-conveyancing/

Electronic signatures in conveyancing

Man in suit using stylus pen to sign contract on digital tablet while working on laptop computer.
TippaPatt/Shutterstock.com

One of the more regular questions we have received from customers since the beginning of lockdown has been whether we could accept electronic signatures (on things like a deed transferring land) instead of it being signed with a pen – a ‘wet-ink’ signature. At a time when most of us are working from home, printing, posting and scanning can be a pain.

This is why we will soon start accepting witnessed electronic signatures and then take steps to ensure that digital signatures (more specifically Qualified Electronic Signatures) can be used when working with HM Land Registry.

What is meant by ‘electronic’ and ‘digital’ signatures?

There are basically two generally recognised forms of electronic signature. The first, which I will call an ‘electronic signature’, is a simple replacement of a wet signature. So, a deed that has to be signed by the person ‘doing the deed’ and a witness can be electronically signed by both.

The second type is what I will call a ‘digital signature’ and is legally a different thing altogether, with its own requirements. Digital signatures are more secure because there is a process preceding them that positively identifies the signatory and the resultant document is encrypted so that it cannot be altered. This balances the fact that a witness is no longer required.

Digital signatures in land transactions have been legally enabled since the Land Registration Act 2002. There are two main types of digital signature: Advanced Electronic Signatures and Qualified Electronic Signatures. Somewhat confusingly, Advanced are not as advanced as Qualified and Qualified are only qualified in the sense that service providers need to be qualified – they are regulated in the UK by the Information Commissioner’s Office. They are both more attractive in comparison with simpler electronic signatures given the added security they offer.

Qualified Electronic Signatures were once a bit clunky to use and impracticable for one-off use, such as in a house transaction. But advances in technology mean the user journey is now seemingly little different from Advanced Electronic Signatures. Moreover, the standards that ‘qualified trust service providers’ have to meet in order to be regulated providers of Qualified Electronic Signatures underpin the confidence we can all place in them – over and above the somewhat looser definition of an Advanced Electronic Signature.

As keeper of the Land Register, we need to be sure that not only has a document been signed in a way that would give it proper legal effect, but also that the process was secure and the risk of fraud minimised.

Our next steps

In the early stages of the coronavirus lockdown we brought together a group of representatives from regulators, trade bodies, conveyancers, lenders and estate agents to discuss the immediate issues of working during lockdown. We also wanted to explore how the solutions we find to our current problems could benefit conveyancing in the future. We have discussed when and how we should approach electronic and digital signatures and the group has helped us immensely with the early stages of our planning. We have also conducted extensive research of the market in electronic and digital signatures and believe that, with some safeguards, we can accept both witnessed electronic signatures and Qualified Electronic Signatures.

We have today issued draft practice guidance setting out the basis on which we would accept electronic signatures. We would welcome any comments you might have before 18 July [Update: the feedback form is now closed. Thank you to those who provided feedback].

We believe that a number of businesses that currently provide electronic signatures to other sectors, should be able to quickly meet these criteria. On top of the other practice changes we have already introduced, this should provide conveyancers with immediate help in meeting the difficulties of working with paper in the current crisis.

But this is not just about the here and now.

It is obvious that the more digitally advanced sectors are those that have thrived in the last few months. Conveyancing is not one of those. It has some digital components, but they need to be joined up. Achieving a long-term, sustainable and secure means of signing property transactions would be a significant component of a wholly digital conveyancing process.

We believe Qualified Electronic Signatures are the right long-term component of that digital future. They have added security and the digital nature of the resultant document will enable joined-up and automated processing elsewhere in the transaction.

In the next few weeks we will issue our practice note on how Qualified Electronic Signatures may be used.

Our hope is that in the near future Qualified Electronic Signatures become more commonplace and the service providers tailor their use to conveyancing. If they do develop to be a successful option for completing property transactions, we will review the use of electronic signatures and may withdraw their acceptance, which would leave only the more secure Qualified Electronic Signatures in use.

Verifying identity

Allied to electronic signatures is the question of how to identify people securely and digitally. We have had a fantastic response to my last blog on that subject and look forward to supporting the industry as it develops a means of using cryptographic biometrics as another foundation of efficient, digital and secure means of conveying property. We will be hosting a series of virtual events at the end of the month to discuss how best to move forward with conveyancers and service providers, and we will update you once these have taken place.

I must thank the cross-section of conveyancers and other industry bodies represented on the HM Land Registry Industry Forum who have supported us in our assessment of electronic signatures and our general hunt for a silver lining among the current clouds.

We welcome your comments about this blog in the comments below. Please note that we are unable to discuss individual cases through the comments section and would request that all such queries be directed to our contact web form where you will receive a response as soon as possible.

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18 comments

  1. Comment by Jonny posted on

    Good article and a much needed boost to an industry/process that is desperate for modernisation.

    As someone who has fairly recently gone through the process of buying a home, I can see that digital signatures (of the Qualified variety in particular) will offer tremendous value to the conveyancer; Land Registry and most importantly the house buyer.

    Reply
  2. Comment by David Moss posted on

    "Verifying identity
    "... We have had a fantastic response to my last blog on that subject and look forward to supporting the industry as it develops a means of using cryptographic biometrics as another foundation of efficient, digital and secure means of conveying property ...".

    For over 50 years now the claim has been made that technology exists which can use biometrics to bind each person to a unique identity even in a population of millions or, in the case of India and China, thousands of millions.

    When tested in large-scale independent trials, the claim has always proved to be false.

    That problem has for a long time been solved by not conducting any more large-scale independent trials.

    It would be exceptionally useful if mass consumer biometrics technology were reliable. But it isn't. It works in Hollywood films. It doesn't work at your high street solicitor's office.

    The academic tenor of the blog post above is exemplary. The need for scepticism about the sales pitch of the biometrics advocates is therefore no doubt obvious to HM Land Registry.

    Reply
  3. Comment by Mr J K Murray posted on

    concerned that this is open to maleficence as quantum computers within the next decade will be abled to decode codes, passwords, and so on. Again concerned for the aged population with health issues being open to this fool proof digital signatures.

    Reply
    • Replies to Mr J K Murray>

      Comment by roger fredrick bayliss posted on

      I FULLY AGREE WITH THIS STATEMENT, IT WILL BE CONFUSING FOR THE ELDERLY, AND THEY COULD BE LED INTO A SCAM BY THE CON-MERCHANTS AND UNTRUSTWORTHY FAMILIY MEMBERS.

      Reply
  4. Comment by Pat Mcewan posted on

    Hi we have been in our new build house just over a year & have yet to receive the deeds, we have no mortgage. I have repeatedly been in touch with the solicitor who says they are behind & the deeds will be posted to us. I am getting very worried, is there anything else that can be done.
    Regards Pat McEwan.

    Reply
  5. Comment by Trevor Mealham posted on

    Well done, the government is allowing fraud on the public via banks such as Lloyds BSU and RBS GRG to forge documents to use in Mickey Mouse Court cases to steal assets in breach of the 2006 Fraud Act

    False flag to assist corruption comes to mind.

    Banks do not lend they sell debt based on promissory notes. The true fund source comes from investors via SPVs. Banks are only agent managers.

    Please can we know which senior civil servant rubber stamped this fraud instrument

    Reply
    • Replies to Trevor Mealham>

      Comment by AdamH posted on

      Trevor - thank you for your comment. We agree that the technology used by conveyancers has to be reliable and secure and we will be setting out clear standards that all ID verification technology has to meet. We will be working with the market to help guide the development of truly effective solutions. Throughout our efforts to introduce electronic signatures and digital ID verification solutions, the integrity and accuracy of the Land Register is our absolute priority. This is true of all of our digital transformation and the new service we introduce.

      Reply
      • Replies to AdamH>

        Comment by Trevor Mealham posted on

        Adam this is a step backwards as banks do not lend, they securities debt. On the flaw now made worse I caught a main bank out in court re fraud.

        Happy to discuss. Ps I was a property industry stakeholder on property fraud and the 3rd 4th Money Laundering Directives.

        The following week the bank sacked their lawyers.

        Reply
  6. Comment by Stewart Brymer posted on

    This is a significant development which is an essential step towards an "end to end" digital process. Well done.

    Reply
  7. Comment by dennis parker posted on

    Does this not mean that for every change one may want to make, you are having to go to a conveyancer.
    Can one not do it them selves on paper forms say for interest if one wife or husband dies they can complete form D.J.P and send to you by post obviously with death certificate.

    Reply
    • Replies to dennis parker>

      Comment by AdamH posted on

      Dennis - it doesn’t mean that and paper forms and wet ink signatures continue to be an option.

      Reply
  8. Comment by Dennis PARKER posted on

    thank you foe that reply so D.J.P forms are still acceptable

    Reply
  9. Comment by Peter Ross posted on

    It will save a lot of time and expense

    Reply
  10. Comment by Jonathan Hawking posted on

    HMLR should move with the times and implement electronic signatures as soon as possible. The Law Commission report on this was some time ago! The need has certainly become more urgent with COVID and the likely increase in home working.

    Reply

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