eSignatures Get The Nod From Land Registry

As the world shifts to digital modes of conducting business, with the Covid-19 pandemic speeding up the process, UK’s Land Registry has made plain its intentions to accept electronic signatures in conveyancing.

“We will soon start accepting witnessed electronic signatures and then take steps to ensure that digital signatures (more specifically Qualified Electronic Signatures) can be used when working with HM Land Registry,”

says Land Registry deputy chief executive, Mike Harlow, in the Registry’s blog.

Harlow says this will “…provide conveyancers with immediate help in meeting the difficulties of working with paper in the current crisis.”

And, while the move makes short-term sense, as it brings huge and instant relief in a time when social distancing and working from home are new norms, it is not just about the here and now, he emphasises.

“It is obvious that the more digitally advanced sectors are those that have thrived in the last few months. Conveyancing is not one of those. It has some digital components, but they need to be joined up. Achieving a long-term, sustainable and secure means of signing property transactions would be a significant component of a wholly digital conveyancing process.”

Paper pain

The long-overdue development comes as ever more time-strapped customers, now also bound by lockdown law, are asking questions around the acceptance of electronic signatures – as opposed to ‘wet-ink’ (pen) signatures – on things like deeds of transfer.

“At a time when most of us are working from home, printing, posting and scanning can be a pain,”

says Harlow.

Recent research indicates that the average office worker uses approximately 10 000 sheets of paper a year. Studies also estimate that associated paper costs – such as storage, postage, copying and printing – add up to about 30 times the actual purchasing cost of the paper.

But manual paper-based processes are not only costly in terms of physical money, they also considerably lessen efficiency and productivity. Think about how much time is spent searching through cabinet upon cabinet of paper records to find a paper document. This wasted time becomes literally a thing of the past when documents digitally archived, able to be indexed at the touch of a few buttons or with a few clicks.

These are modern-day realities the business world universally is coming to accept – and change – using sophisticated, secure solutions such as digital signature software.

In the early stages of lockdown, HM Land Registry gathered a group of representatives, including regulators and trade bodies, conveyancers, lenders and estate agents to discuss and explore how the solutions found amid the pandemic could benefit conveyancing in the future.

“We have also conducted extensive research of the market in electronic and digital signatures and believe that, with some safeguards, we can accept both witnessed electronic signatures and Qualified Electronic Signatures.”

Defining differences

Often confused with simple electronic signatures, digital signatures are much more than that. Digital signatures are the most advanced and secure type of electronic signature because they guarantee that the contents of a message or document have not been altered or tampered with in any way.

Also referred to as “advanced electronic signatures” or “secure electronic signatures”, digital signatures are steeped in cryptography. They are based on Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) technology and use accredited personal X.509 digital certificates to provide the highest levels of security and universal acceptance.

On the other hand, an electronic signature – also referred to as an “ordinary electronic signature” – can literally be as simple as a scanned image of a handwritten (wet-ink) signature that is copied onto a signed document, in Word for example. Another case of an electronic signature would be your name, typed at the end of an email.

Electronic signatures do not have the ability to lock documents for editing after the signing process, nor do they carry any active verification capability. This leaves documents signed with electronic signatures open to fraud and repudiation.

An electronic signature can even be verbal, a simple click of a box, or drawn on a hardware device such as a signature pad.

Advanced electronic signatures (AES) and qualified electronic signatures (QES) are both instances of digital signatures. An AES is an electronic signature that has met the requirements set forth under EU Regulation (No 910/2014). A QES is an advanced electronic signature that is created by a qualified signature creation device and is based on a qualified certificate for electronic signatures.

As Harlow points out, a digital signature is legally different to an electronic signature, and comes with its own requirements.

“Digital signatures are more secure because there is a process preceding them that positively identifies the signatory and the resultant document is encrypted so that it cannot be altered. This balances the fact that a witness is no longer required.”

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