Experts Share Views On The Impact Of E-Signatures

The impact of e-signatures and electronic instruction taking systems is changing the face of the Wills and Probate industry. According to a consultation paper from the Law Commission of England and Wales, electronic signing of legal documents should be considered just as legally binding as a handwritten one – without the need to change the law. The Law Commission has further stated that the electronic signature can even be valid when it is just a typed name or a single click of a button to authorise a legal document.

According to the government’s legal adviser, the revelation should allow consumers to be able to use digital devices to sign legal documents that previously required manual signatures, which includes credit agreements, property sales and the granting of power of attorney.

The Law Commission has since confirmed that UK law already accommodates e-signatures but some businesses still insist on handwritten signatures on documents due to fears that legal challenges could be launched against documents signed via electronic means.

It has been stated that using e-signatures can speed up transactions for businesses and consumers and the current process of handwritten signatures is considered to be more costly and time consuming for the clients and businesses themselves.

Industry experts talk about the impact of e-signatures, whether they have adopted electronic systems and changed their processes regarding signatures – and if they have noticed a difference in terms of cost, efficiency and client satisfaction.

Emily Deane, Technical Counsel at The Society of Trust & Estate Practitioners (STEP), commented: “STEP welcomes the Commission’s intention to clarify the rules on the use of electronic signatures and is in the process of liaising with its members in relation to this consultation. The consultation confirms that electronic signatures can be used for legal documents under English law although it does not include the execution of wills or powers of attorneys which are being reviewed under cover of separate projects.

“The use of different kinds of digital signatures are described: namely simple electronic, advanced electronic and qualified electronic signatures. STEP supports the use of qualified electronic signatures for legal documents such as trust deeds. Other issues such as signatures via video link, cross border electronic execution and the physical presence of witnesses are discussed. Many of these processes need to be considered in further depth, however these technological advancements are generally welcomed, on the proviso that vulnerable people remain safeguarded.

“There are potential drawbacks to digital signatures such as encouraging decisions to be made in haste, fraud and digital exclusion. One of the main concerns is that the majority of people may fail to read the terms and conditions documents before agreeing to them online. Those who are digitally excluded would also be a concern, due to age, illiteracy or lack of resources, and we wonder whether there should be a prohibition on the process being exclusively online.”

Tom Stansfield from The Society of Will Writers comments. He said “The SWW are happy to provide a response to this topic. We’ve been doing a lot of work with the software developers behind Sure Will Writer on electronic signatures. It seems to us that it’s only a matter of time for these will be legally admissible on Wills which will change the process and way that these documents are created and attested.

“When doing our own research, we found it important to fully understand what an electronic signature is. The European Commission defines it as – ‘Is an electronic indication of a person’s intent to agree to the content of a document or a set of data to which the signature relates’. I understand that there are concerns regarding legal challenges to electronic signatures but there are also challenges to handwritten signatures too. From our interaction with members of the public and active professionals there will always be challenges to a Will’s validity on the grounds of fraud or undue influence. Whether this is a wet ink signature or an electronic signature, I don’t see what difference it makes. The person is still giving effect to the contents of the document. With the advancement in technology and the more realistic likeness of the signatures then they will become common place.”

Siobhan Rattigan from The Society of Will Writers also added that “A number of Society members already utilise e-signatures in their day to day dealings with clients, especially those who take instructions remotely. Our Will drafting software, Sure Will Writer, also supports the use of e-signatures and is built with those who want to take instructions directly onto the software in mind, allowing the drafter and their clients to sign their instruction forms electronically. I feel this is beneficial as it streamlines the drafting process and removes some of the administrative burden of scanning, processing and storing loose-leaf documents. This could result in the cost of Wills reducing across the board and make working with clients remotely more commonplace.”

In relation to business at the SWW, Tom further added that “the SWW accepts e-signatures on membership applications, membership declarations and other documents. Without a doubt it speeds up the processes we have here. It means we can have someone’s membership set up even more quickly, resulting in us being able to support them a whole lot quicker. We have no doubt that as technology improves relating to e-signatures and the security behind these signatures, processes will be so much easier.”

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