Signing documents during the lockdown
Many legal documents need to be witnessed, which can be an issue with complying with social distancing rules and many professionals now working from home (ourselves included). With traditional execution methods of execution such printing and signing unlikely to be practical, from being due to the absence of equipment and the remoteness of witnesses, there are a number of practical and technical options available to you.
Firstly, all rules relating to signatures remain in force. This means that in certain circumstances you cannot delegate signatures, checks and balances remain an access to witnesses remains a must. Guidance has been issued in respect of some circumstances and we are awaiting some more from the Law Society and the Government and the advice below might change, however, the entire legal system is working to try and keep moving and hopefully the below will provide you with some assistance.
Electronic Signatures are valid under English Law. The Law Society issued guidance in February 2010 which sets out a non-exhaustive list of the methods that can be used for remote signings. This can be from as simple as printing, signing and scanning through to using a camera to photograph the pages.
There are options such as DocuSign, which allows for an electronic signature together with some fancy coding going on behind the scenes to ensure that it is genuine, through to straight forward electronic signatures, written and inserted. Whether or not this is acceptable will depend on the individual document and should be discussed with your lawyer before using the same.
For a simple contract an electronic signature will usually be considered acceptable, however the question on Deeds that require witnesses remains open as witnesses are supposed to be present when the document is signed. We have already encountered situations with clients signing documents and then passing them through the window to neighbours, maintaining social distancing to achieve this.
Signing these types of documents over Skype or Zoom calls remains an unknown. It will very much depend on the individual document and also the circumstances behind the same. At present for Deeds it must be “in the presence of a witness” and despite requests for guidance, it is not yet clear whether electronic calls are sufficient for these. If the execution of your document can wait then please do so, otherwise speak to your lawyer about whether this is suitable.
Some cases have involved people signing documents over a call and then sending them to the witnesses to the call for execution. This is likely to be held valid providing there is evidence that the witnesses were on the call, there was no coercion and the documents were sent via recorded delivery or hand delivered. The real question will come whether or not someone wishes to contend that these were not entered into validly; which will not be in the interests of most clients.
With the absence of guidance on this point, this will remain under review and will be discussed with individual clients as to whether or not it is suitable for their circumstances.
In all of these cases, IT security will have to be taken into consideration and strict rules will apply to electronic signatures. There may be follow up calls to people to ensure that documents have not been intercepted and whether or not completing them electronically, your lawyer may wish to see you on camera doing so to ensure that it is you completing the document. In the cases of husbands and wives, unmarried couple ad business partners, there may be the need for separate telephone calls or camera calls to ensure no coercion.
In all of this we encourage our clients to comply with any extra measures we have, this is for your safety and our own. If we feel uneasy, we have the right to not assist and delay the completion of any documentation, so your co-operation is vital to achieving your goal.
Power of Attorney
If you have a valid Power of Attorney then the person holding that can sign on your behalf, however, if you have not already entered into one, then this will prove problematic, as it needs to be executed as a Deed and therefore will require signatures and witnesses of its own. If you do not already hold one, then it may be worth considering the same for after the lockdown is lifted, in the event that a similar event happens again; please speak to our Wills Team about this as they will be able to guide you through the process.
Overall, our advice is that if it can wait, then please wait until the lockdown is lifted before signing any documents. Property transfers are unlikely to be delayed by waiting, the Land Registry is working to allow electronic completion but with the difficulties in moving right now (removal companies, viewings etc) it is more likely that these types of transactions will not complete until after the lockdown is lifted.
If your document is more pressing, such as a remortage, a contract to purchase a business or a Deed of Variation in connection with a lease, please talk to your lawyer. Across the profession everyone is working to achieve the results our clients need and we will try and assist you without endangering yourself, our staff or breaking any of the lockdown rules. As already stated, if you have concerns, then please talk to your lawyer who will try and assist however they can.