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MoJ gives support to wider use of e-signatures


Mark Say Managing Editor

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The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has signalled its support for the wider use of e-signatures with a welcome for a new industry working group interim report on the technology.

Titled Electronic Execution of Documents, it sets out best practice guidance for the use of existing technology and makes recommendations for future analysis and reform.

It clearly comes out in favour of electronic signatures, saying they can be safe and effective for a range of legal transactions, and that the technical and legal framework are already available to support their wider use. But their take-up has been slow, with widespread uncertainties about their availability and security, and some cultural resistance to moving away from pen and paper.

In response, the report says that e-signatures could and should be used more widely and that the legal reforms and technological advances should be developed in step with one another.

It sets out five principles for best practice, including the need to agree early that a document should be executed electronically and on the procedure for doing so, and that there should be a minimum set of security and safety functions with a strong audit trail in any signing platform used.

The other three are: consider the need for any additional evidence to record the fact that the signatory is approving the document; where possible provide multiple options to vulnerable customers or counterparties; and that authentication should be easier for those with secure digital identities.

Several recommendations are included in the report. In a video introduction, High Court judge Mr Justice Peter Fraser, highlighted the call for the Government to make e-signing available for all types of official documents, including its own contracts with suppliers.

He also emphasised the need for citizens to be able to adopt digital identities.

Better than pen and ink

Deputy Head of Civil Justice Lord Justice Birss commented: “Using the latest authentication techniques, it’s not just as good as the old pen and ink method, in many ways the new techniques can be better and more secure.

“There’s every reason to adopt these methods. Both the legal and technical frameworks already exist and there is no reason to wait.”

He also pointed the example of HM Land Registry already make it possible for conveyancers to use e-signatures and running a pilot on the extension of deeds.

Under Secretary of State at the MoJ Lord David Wolsfon 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.”

The industry working group is now going into a second phase of work focused on the challenges in the use of e-signatures in cross-border transactions, and how best to use them to reduce the risk of fraud.

Image: Lord Birss, Sarah Green of the Law Commission, Peter Fraser. From GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0


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