Electronic Signatures: Document Signing Made Easy
The paperless office revolution has finally arrived
Although electronic signatures may seem like cutting edge technology, they are relatively well established and have been recognised in UK law since 2000.
Electronic signatures provide a means of speeding up the document completion process and reduce many of the risks associated with paper document signing. By comparison, obtaining a written signature in ink on a printed document for many types of commercial transactions at best adds unnecessary delay, and at worst can result in the transaction not being completed at all.
What is an Electronic Signature?
A written signature could be described as a mark made by a person on a document which indicates that they accept the document’s terms and will be bound by them.
An electronic signature, or e-Signature, is the digital equivalent of a written signature – a verifiable way of a person which indicates their acceptance of an agreement. An electronic signature is in the form of data (the signature) which is associated with some other data (the document).
A picture or facsimile of a written signature is not usually considered to be a true electronic signature, although a signature written on a device such as a courier’s tablet device certainly is one.
The legal definition is much wider than that, and can include, for example:
- Clicking an acceptance button on a website terms and conditions.
- Making a signature on a website form using a mouse.
- Typing a name into a website form and clicking a confirmation button.
- Using a voice signature.
- A biodynamic signature made on a device which records the way the signature was made, such as speed and pressure used.
- A digital signature – a set of electronic ‘keys’ used to authenticate a transaction or to sign in to a service.
Benefits of Electronic Signing
The main advantages of using eSignatures are:
- Time – documents can be delivered, signed, and returned almost instantaneously.
- Security – documents signed and sealed electronically are more secure than paper.
- Cost – costs are reduced by not having to print, deliver, receive, file, and manage paper documents.
- Environmental – eliminates paper and physical transport.
Businesses of any size who regularly require clients or customers to sign documents will benefit from introducing electronic signatures.
e-Signature Services – How They Work
Every e-Signature service works slightly differently, but all follow a similar process:
Document creator uploads the document to the e-Signature service using a common file format such as PDF.
- Once uploaded, the document is marked up to indicate where signature and other details are to be added.
- The document is transmitted via the service to the recipient, who is usually prompted by email.
- Recipient signs the form using the mouse (or finger on touch devices), or simply types their name, and confirms their acceptance with a confirmation button or similar. Sometimes typed ‘signatures’ are shown in a script-style font, but this is merely to improve presentation.
- The completed document is then returned to the originator via the e-Signature service.
Legal status of Electronic Signatures
The Electronic Communications Act 2000 recognises electronic signatures as legal evidence in the UK.
In the event of a legal dispute over a signed agreement, proof that the agreement was properly signed will be influenced by additional evidence of the surrounding facts and circumstances. e-Signature services collect a range of information when a document is signed, not just the actual signature, so in some cases there is stronger evidence than with a ‘wet’ signature on paper.
The majority of consumer and commercial contracts and agreements can be electronically signed, but there are certain types of documents where a written signature is still required. These include wills, deeds, property transfers, and documents which require a witnessed signature. Legal advice should be sought if you are in any doubt.
For more detail on the legal status of electronic signatures, see the Department for Business Innovation & Skills Electronic Signatures Guide.
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