Signs of the times


Following recent changes from Her Majesty’s Land Registry, Derek Inkpin from local solicitors Wiseman Lee looks forward to a new era of  electronic signatures in the conveyancing world

Your signature on a document as proof of your binding commitment has been with us for centuries. Sign a piece of paper and you are demonstrating to the world that you will be bound by the document you sign because that is your act or deed which commits you to a legal obligation.

There is in the main, however, nothing wrong with a verbal contract. Once two people orally agree to do something, it can, in many circumstances, be legally binding upon each of them, such as: “I agree to buy your car for £10,000,” says the buyer, and the seller replies: “I accept.”

A contract then comes into being, following which either the seller or the buyer can be sued if one of the parties fails to perform their obligations. It starts getting complicated when the buyer says: “I am interested in buying your car,” and the seller interprets those words as an offer which, in his mind, he has accepted. Verbal contracts can therefore become complicated because of a lack of certainty. Buying or selling a house or flat is legally simpler because for the contract to be enforceable it must be in writing, containing all the terms upon which the parties agree, and signed by each of the parties, or by an attorney on their behalf or (if so authorised) by their solicitor.

As we all know, the world has changed since the World Wide Web came into being, courtesy of Tim Berners-Lee in 1991. Some 30 years later, people who are selling or buying property in this country may simply say to their conveyancer: “Email me the contract and I will print it, sign it and email it back to you.” Does that work as a legal concept? I’m afraid not unless the correct procedure is followed.

What your conveyancer has always asked for is the original contract to be signed (normally referred to as a wet signature) and then returned to their office. Why? Because the law and procedures say so. However, at long last, help is at hand because the Land Registry – which governs the registration of sales and purchases of property – has recently published guidance on the acceptance of electronic signatures.

All parties signing a deed for a property transfer must be represented by a conveyancer and all must agree to the use of such an electronic procedure. The parties must still have their signatures witnessed, and once each conveyancer is in receipt of the transfer deed, the transaction is then completed and transmitted to the Land Registry electronically. This will involve a conveyancer acquiring a software package which will meet the Land Registry’s specific requirements. After hundreds of years of ‘wet’ signatures, we are now entering a new era.

Wiseman Lee is located at 9–13 Cambridge Park, Wanstead, E11 2PU. For more information, call 020 8215 1000