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The developing use of electronic signatures

Back in July we started accepting electronic signatures on conveyancing deeds. That removed the last strict requirement for paper and wet-ink signatures in the conveyancing process.

Soon after issuing our practice note on how to use them, we began to receive electronically signed deeds.

The original draft of the practice guidance was informed by a consultative process, and over the last two months we have continued to listen to and learn from our customers and signature providers. We recently updated the practice to widen the scope of the use of witnessed electronic signatures. We will continue to work with both customers and technology providers to improve our practice guidance and make sure that it stays up to date and works for everyone.

Witnessed electronic signatures

The type of electronic signatures you can currently use we call ‘witnessed electronic signatures’. The electronic signature simply replaces the wet-ink signature. If a witness is required, as it is for all deeds in the name of an individual, you still need someone to be present to witness you signing electronically and the witness then needs to sign electronically also.

Electronic signature providers understand how this works and have adapted, or are adapting, their services to enable ‘witnessed electronic signatures’. As the process is simple and the change from current ways of creating deeds is minimal we see this approach as having broad appeal to conveyancers, particularly in the current circumstances where printing and posting is harder and slower.

Adding qualified electronic signatures

When we first announced our work on electronic signatures, we said that we believed that, in the longer-term, qualified electronic signatures potentially provided a more secure and convenient option for conveyancing. This type of signature does not require a witness as the process has an embedded identity check within it, the output is encrypted to create an indelible record and it all works to a regulated standard.

Watch our short video about the processes.

While we do believe they are likely to be a success, the identity processes within them are still developing and their use with consumers in our property market is obviously untested. They may initially suit some types of conveyancer more than others.

So, our intention is to work with the sector to bring them in as an option as soon as possible, but with the expectation that they will be used alongside witnessed electronic signatures for some time to come. We will at some point review the use of witnessed electronic signatures, but not until qualified electronic signatures have shown how they perform in practice for the various different uses within the property market. That may take some time – possibly a couple of years or more. In the meantime, we will continue to support the growing use of both types of signature, as a cornerstone of a more resilient and digital conveyancing process.

We are getting close to having draft practice guidance for qualified electronic signatures which we will share with everyone in the market for initial feedback in the coming weeks. As with witnessed electronic signatures, we will evolve the guidance according to your feedback. It may then take a few months for the qualified electronic signature providers to tailor their services to meet the conveyancing sector’s needs.

Digital conveyancing

An electronic signature is one of the key foundation stones of a truly digital conveyancing process. Digital identity checking, digital deeds and digital land registration processes are among the others. Those are also what we are and will be working on with our partners in the industry in the coming months. We will keep you updated here.

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  1. Comment by Sharon Eves posted on

    I really think you have taken a wrong turn in accepting any sort of digital signature on any sort of document. This is not a resilient method of identification. It will take only one person to defraud this system and the entire process will be called into question. What happens then to all the documents that have been legitimately digitally signed? Additionally, if ever the digital network is threatened or even disabled, how will your systems cope without these digital signatures? Far better then to keep the old fashioned pen and ink alongside the less reliable but fashionable digital signatures.

    • Replies to Sharon Eves>

      Comment by John Mitchell posted on

      I quite agree with Sharon. At present fraudulent transactions can be made using "real" signatures. Electronic signatures won't make it any harder for fraudsters rather the opposite. At the very least an additional check should be made maybe by a confirmatory phone call.

    • Replies to Sharon Eves>

      Comment by AdamH posted on

      Sharon - thank you for your comment, your feedback is much appreciated and your views will be taken into consideration as our thinking develops. I would like to reassure you that the traditional pen-and-ink option will still be available alongside these new digital solutions, we are not proposing to remove that approach.
      Security is our first concern and we have thought long and hard about how to ensure digital signatures are at least as secure as paper-and-ink. We will continue to monitor and if necessary adapt our processes to maintain the security you would expect.

    • Replies to Sharon Eves>

      Comment by James Noel posted on

      Why do you suppose wet ink signatures are any less vulnerable to fraud? Fraud happens here all the time. If anything a digital system (with complementary means of identification) has the means of being more secure,

  2. Comment by David Murphy posted on

    Seems fine, so long as the original pack requesting a person's email and mobile number aren't intercepted beforehand (at any level, for any purpose)!

  3. Comment by L Akeh posted on

    Electronic signature has been around for quite sometime now, where you have contracts closed electronically with their help. The use of softwares like Docusign and the rest has always been useful and I believe that incorporating electronic signature into the process especially in this current climate should be more than welcome; It will help limite the time and ensure safety amongst the parties involved. Plus, we like it or not, easy completion is the future of contracts.

  4. Comment by Alf Manders posted on

    I'm fine with this in theory, but in practice, the recording of a signature needs to be combined with fingerprint or iris recognition available on most smartphones.

  5. Comment by Pankaj Morjaria posted on

    System has to be water tight so in the future any poor uneducated or old digitally /technologically less intelligent person does not come into fraudsters trap and loose out. Land registry needs to guarantee before implementing this sort of system.

  6. Comment by Katherine Crowley, Womble Bond Dickinson posted on

    Thank you to the Land Registry for allowing our industry to join the 21st century. As lawyers we live in a regulated bubble that can discourage change, but we need to look around at how the rest of the world is doing business. Whether we act for the biggest developers or individual homeowners, it's important that they can all use an execution method that fits their needs. With the requirement that 2-factor authentication be applied to all e-signatures (the same technology that protects many financial transactions), the Land Registry is right to accept and trust them.

  7. Comment by Janet Higbee posted on

    I second the comments made by Katherine Crowley. I applaud HMLR for seeking secure ways of keeping up with the rest of the business world. Change is always hard but here it is necessary to move forward. 'Wet ink' signed paper documents are not fraud free.

  8. Comment by Megan Jenkins, Shakespeare Martineau posted on

    I welcome the Land Registry's approach and agree with the last 2 comments above. Esignatures are a welcome step that should make life and business easier. We welcome their use for a wider range of transactions once the technology becomes suitable. We can use esignatures safely provided that all dealing with property (consumers, businesses and professionals) continue to complete diligently all the other anti-fraud measures built into transactions (eg identity checks) as well as the protections within the esignature process, This is part of a much bigger picture.

  9. Comment by Claudine Boast posted on

    I welcome the Land Registry's approach to modernising the processes. Its has been in the pipeline for about 15 years. However wet ink signatures are still required on many documents required by the Land Registry such as ID 1, ID2 and Conveyancer Certificates in respect of restrictions.

    With COVID lasting on paper for up to 5 days, why is the Land Registry increasing the risk to solicitors, the public and Land Registry staff by continuing to insist on "wet ink signatures" on any documents at all? The government guidance is very clear its guidance regarding "avoiding sharing pens, documents and other objects". However an ID1 requires to be signed by the client, then the solicitor and then is posted to and handled by someone at the Land Registry. At least two opportunities for transmission right there.

    Surely it is enough that the Land Registry has the full contact details of the solicitor giving the certificate and can simply phone or email them (as they do anyway for ID1s) to confirm the authenticity of the certificate?

    Continuing the unnecessary requirement for wet ink signatures is not only irresponsible and inefficient, it is unnecessarily risking life. I look forward to seeing the requirement for wet ink signatures being done away with entirely.

  10. Comment by Trevor Mealham posted on

    Wet Ink documents are key. I suggest Land Registry removes this crazy stupid move whilst banks such as Lloyds and RBS are mentioned in over 300 forged documents currently with the NCA.

    Total stupidity and opens the doors for abuse in court and fraud

    Time to increase the Land Registry's insurance for 'stupid changes leaving us open to fraud claims' as copy paste is a gift horse for White collar crime

  11. Comment by Simon Hellewell posted on

    How does the conveyancer satisfy themself that "the requirements set out in practice guide 8 for the execution of deeds using electronic signatures have been satisfied"? Does this requirement imply an obligation on the part of the conveyancer to carry out some investigation into the execution process? If it does, then that places a more onerous obliagtion on the conveyancer than they would assume in the case of a wet signature document. Docusign produce a "Certificate of Completion". Should the conveyancer review the detail of the certificate to satisfy themself that the requirements appear to have been complied with?

    • Replies to Simon Hellewell>

      Comment by AdamH posted on

      Simon - Thank you for your enquiry. We have recently made some amendments to Practice Guide 8: execution of deeds to clarify in requirement 6 of section 13.3, that the certificate we require might be signed by the seller’s conveyancer and subsequently passed to the buyer’s conveyancer for lodgement with the application (as in most cases involving transfers it will be the seller’s conveyancer who will control the signing process, and the buyer’s conveyancer who will lodge the application). Bearing in mind the qualified terms of the certificate, which only requires the conveyancer to certify that to the best of their knowledge and belief the requirements have been satisfied, we hope that it will not be too onerous for the conveyancer controlling the signing process to provide such a certificate, or for the buyer’s conveyancer to do so having been satisfied on completion that the deed was duly executed.
      In addition, as you have mentioned, an audit report by the platform provider is generated following completion of the signing process and should assist in demonstrating that the requirements have been followed. It provides an audit trail of the signing including the time and date of the signatures, email addresses the document was sent to, the one-time password method used, the fields that were completed and the IP addresses of the devices that were used.