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Suzanne Townley

News Editor, Solicitors Journal

Working group report sets out best practice on use of e-signatures

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Working group report sets out best practice on use of e-signatures

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'There’s no need for old-fashioned pen and ink', said Lord Justice Birss

The expert Industry Working Group on Electronic Execution of Documents has published its interim report on electronic signatures, which encourages a culture change towards digital signatures and includes a practical best practice guide on their use.

The working group was convened following a recommendation by the Law Commission, which the lord chancellor welcomed and implemented. The group was led by High Court judge Mr Justice Peter Fraser and the Law Commission’s Professor Sarah Green, and was comprised of individuals from the legal and tech industries.

In a recorded discussion between Lord Justice Birss, Mr Justice Fraser and Professor Green, Green explained that in 2019, the Law Commission produced a report that set out the legal position on digital signatures, which confirmed electronic signatures were entirely valid for most transactions.

However, after the report was published, the Law Commission realised people did not necessarily have the confidence or know how to use digital signatures. As such, the working group’s aim was to look at the practicalities of e-signatures and provide best practice guidance on how to use them.  

The interim report sets out its analysis of the current situation in England and Wales; identifies simple best practice guidance based on existing technology, including for vulnerable individuals; and makes recommendations for future analysis and reform.

Lord Justice Birss said: “The interim report carefully examines what the current situation is and why e-signing has had a limited uptake in the UK so far… how it can and should be done, and makes some really important recommendations.

“In summary, the interim report aims to bring transactions and agreements up to date. The report shows how we can and should safely use the latest technology to sign things that way, as well.

“There’s no need for old-fashioned pen and ink. In fact, using the latest authentication techniques, it’s not just as good as the old pen and ink method, in many ways these new techniques can be better and more secure and there’s every reason to adopt these methods now – both the legal and framework and the technical framework exists and there’s no reason to wait”.

Mr Justice Peter Fraser highlighted two key recommendations from the interim report: that the government make electronic signing available for all different types of official documents, including all government contracts; and that “citizens of this country should be encouraged to adopt a digital identity”, which would help speed up transactions and make them more secure.

He said the aim for the future was that digital signatures would become the law, “rather than the exception”.

Lord David Wolfson, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, said: “We in Government are excited about the potential benefits of new, digital ways of working and I welcome in particular the best practice guidance put forward by the group, which will help increase confidence in and encourage uptake of electronic signatures.

“I am committed to ensuring the UK jurisdiction remains at the forefront of adapting to digital innovation, so that we can best capture the opportunities this offers for our businesses and citizens.

“In the next phase of its work, the Group will focus on its remaining Terms of Reference, namely to consider the challenges arising from the use of electronic signatures in cross-border transactions and how to address them, and how best to use electronic signatures so as to optimise their benefits when set against the risk of fraud”.