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New expert group to increase confidence and standards in e-signatures

Following a recommendation from the Law Commission in 2019, a new Industry Working Group of experts has been implemented by the Lord Chancellor in order to address best practice and improve standards of electronic signatures for the purpose of improved reliability and security.

The Law Commission’s 2019 report highlighted that despite the already widespread use of electronic signatures, there are various inherent challenges that they present, mainly related to uncertainty around their legal status. Concerns were raised that the more widespread uptake of e-signatures may be limited, due to the lack of clarity in this area:

“We have been told that issues around the electronic execution of documents, including uncertainty around the legal status of electronic signatures, are inhibiting the use of new technology where legislation requires a document to be “signed” or executed as a deed.”

The Law Commission

The group will be chaired by Mr Justice Fraser under the oversight of Lord Justice Birss and with assistance from Professor Sarah Green of the Law Commission. Experts sourced from legal, business and technology sectors via a public appointments campaign will form the other members of the group.

What are the key aims?

  • Analysing different technologies to assess how secure and reliable they are when used to execute documents electronically, whilst considering how they can help to provide evidence of identity and intention.

  • Researching possible technological solutions to understand how they can protect signatories from potential fraud.

  • Consolidating best practice guidance for the use of e-signatures across a variety of different transactions and also for individuals (in particular those who are vulnerable) who will use e-signatures.

  • Addressing challenges in the use of e-signatures for cross-border transactions and considering potential solutions.

  • Making recommendations to government and other relevant sectors on where reforms should be made, whilst providing more guidance to businesses and professionals.

Work started this summer and it is expected that an interim report will be produced by the end of the year to deliver initial findings, areas of particular interest and any subjects which may require public consultation. The government believes that the group will play a key role in “in ensuring the UK is a centre for legal excellence in developing the law to support and facilitate digital trade and commerce.”

This month saw the UK’s first ever property deal using the QES (qualified electronic signature) being trialled by HM Land Registry. The QES does not need to be witnessed as the signatory’s identity is verified by an independent checker. You can read the full report on this here.

It is hoped that the standardization of electronic signatures will instil higher levels of confidence in businesses and institutions leading to more widespread adoption of the technology and consequently, more streamlined digital processes of declaring consent in areas that currently do not allow for it.

You can read the announcement from the Ministry of Justice regarding the Industry Working Group here and the full 2019 report from The Law Commission here.

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