From Monday 27 July 2020, HM Land Registry will accept ‘witnessed electronic signatures’: electronic signatures that enable an individual to sign legal documents, but which still require a witness who is present at the time to also sign the documents electronically.
The organisation has published new practice guidance for conveyancers on how to use electronic signatures after seeking feedback from across the sector.
The new guidance on the use of electronic signatures will enable the providers of electronic signatures to develop new affordable and accessible tools for conveyancers to use.
Simon Hayes, Chief Executive and Chief Land Registrar said:
What we have done today is remove the last strict requirement to print and sign a paper document in a home buying or other property transaction. This should help right now while lots of us are working at home, but it is also a keystone of a truly digital, secure and more efficient conveyancing process that we believe is well within reach. The more sophisticated qualified electronic signatures are a part of that vision and encouraging those is where our attention will be directed next. I’d like to thank everyone who responded to our consultation on the guidance. This has helped to ensure this new witnessed electronic signature process works for everyone.
Feedback from conveyancers and others in the sector was sought on the new practice, which directly informed the process to be followed and the guidance for conveyancers which was published today. More details on this consultation process and the main questions raised is covered in a blog by Robin Malpas, Deputy Director for Central Legal Services.
The move comes shortly after HM Land Registry recently began accepting deeds that have been signed using the ‘Mercury signing approach’, which will remain as another way of completing a deed.
HM Land Registry is already holding further discussions with the sector to explore the potential introduction of qualified electronic signatures as soon as practicable. If they do develop to be a successful option for completing property transactions, HM Land Registry will review the continues use of witnessed electronic signatures.
Work is also being undertaken to explore whether digital identity checking technology used in other sectors can be encouraged in the conveyancing industry to increase resilience against fraud and improve the ease of buying and selling.
Read the practice guidance on HM Land Registry’s GOV.UK pages.
Witnessed electronic signatures
A witnessed electronic signature is the replacement within a standard deed of a wet-ink signature with an electronic signature. A witness is still required to be present, who can also ‘sign’ electronically.
The process will involve a conveyancer uploading the deed to an online platform which sends a link to the signatories. Once they have completed the necessary authentication checks, they would then ‘sign’ the document electronically in the physical presence of the witness who then also signs. The conveyancer is then notified that the signing process has been concluded and, once they have effected completion of the deed, can submit the completed deed to HM Land Registry with their application for registration.
In every case the online platform would need to include two-factor authentication to authenticate the signatories and witness accessing the deed and provide assurance that unique individuals have signed. A link to the document is emailed and then an authentication code sent to the individual’s mobile phone.
Conveyancers will certify that to the best of their knowledge and belief the requirements set out in the new section of Practice Guide 8 for the execution of deeds using electronic signatures have been satisfied.
Qualified electronic signatures
Qualified electronic signatures operate on the basis that a Qualified Trust Service Provider’ has standards in place to securely and accurately verify the identity of the signatory and protect the integrity of the document.
Generally, the document would be uploaded by the conveyancer, the signatory would access the document but would need to meet the identification requirements of the Qualified Trust Service Provider before signing. The signed document is then made available to the conveyancer to access and submit to HM Land Registry.
Qualified Electronic Signatures are considered more secure as the ID checking and encryption need to be undertaken to a set standard and are controlled by a regulated body.
HM Land Registry are exploring whether Witnessed Electronic Signatures could be retired in favour of Qualified Electronic Signatures once the technology matures. This will only be done after careful consideration around the availability and accessibility of appropriate technology among other factors.
The ‘Mercury approach’ for signatures was introduced on 4 May
This approach allows for a signature page to be signed in pen in the physical presence of a witness (not by a video call).
The signature will then need to be captured, with a scanner or a camera, to produce a PDF, JPEG or other suitable copy of the signed signature page.
Each party sends a single email to their conveyancer to which is attached the final agreed copy of the document and the copy of the signed signature page.
This approach will remain available regardless of the ongoing research around Qualified Electronic Signatures.