The Land Registry has confirmed it will soon accept witnessed electronic signatures and that it is taking steps towards the use of digital signatures (qualified electronic signatures). 

It has issued draft practice guidance which sets out the basis on which it will accept electronic signatures. The guidance will be updated once it has reviewed industry feedback on the draft and is expected in the next few weeks.

The issue of ‘wet’ versus electronic signatures came to the fore during lockdown, as restrictions meant professionals, clients and witnesses could not meet in person. 

Mike Harlow, general counsel, deputy chief executive and deputy chief land registrar, issued commentary alongside the guidance which offered clarification on the forms of electronic signature that may be used. 

He explained there are two generally recognised forms – advanced electronic signatures which simply replace a wet signature, and a qualified digital signature. 

Using the electronic signature, the relevant deed can be signed and witnessed using an electronic signature. 

However, qualified digital signatures have their own legal requirements. They are typically more secure as there is a process to positively identify the signatory and the final document is encrypted so cannot be altered. Harlow commented: “This balances the fact that a witness is no longer required”.

Harlow explained qualified digital signatures are only qualified in the sense service providers need to be qualified; they are regulated by the Information Commissioner’s Office. 

In the early stages of lockdown, the Land Registry engaged with regulators, trade bodies, conveyancers, lenders and estate agents to discuss immediate challenges and “explore how the solutions we find to our current problems could benefit conveyancing in the future”. 

This included when and how to approach electronic and digital signatures. “Extensive” research of the electronic and digital signatures market was also carried out and the Land Registry believes, “with some safeguards”, it can accept both advanced (witnessed) electronic signatures and qualified electronic signatures.

Steven Tallant, chief executive of digital contracting software developer, Videosign, welcomed the news. He said: “Changes to the way we live and work in the last 18 months mean use of electronic signatures is at an all-time high, and this new guidance offers important clarity for the conveyancing industry.

“But insecure electronic signatures can be open to abuse and lead to later legal disputes, so it is vital that all parties have confidence that documents will stand up to scrutiny and can be properly authenticated.

“Our mission is to make electronic signatures as secure and useable as possible, and our platform is constantly evolving to meet the requirements of this emerging new way of doing business”.

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