It is hard to believe that we once operated without the assistance of electronic devices. Both in our professional and personal lives, electronic devices streamline everything we do, and there is almost certainly no going back to an offline world. People expect the flexibility and efficiency provided by electronic devices, and when it comes to signing legal documents, the online world is once again at the forefront of the signatory's mind. This is why the e-signature was welcomed by so many with open arms. Combine the rise of electronic devices with the unprecedented restrictions introduced by the Covid-19 pandemic and even HM Land Registry couldn't resist the revolutionary e-signature. 

In July 2020, HM Land Registry announced that they would accept witnessed electronic signatures; a truly monumental milestone. Just over one year later and the Land Registry have started trialing yet another advancement in electronic signatures - "the real gamechanger" in signing documents - qualified electronic signatures (QES). QESs verify the signatory's identity in such a way that the need for a witness could arguably be dispensed with, in favour of an electronic verification process using a qualified trust service provider. However, whilst this method may well simplify the identity verification process, arguments could be made that a witness's role is not limited only to that of identity verification.  A witness may also confirm that the relevant party entered into the document free of external pressures (at least at the time of signing), which, whilst not necessarily conclusive, can provide assurances in the future if it is ever claimed that the signatory was forced to sign the relevant document. There appears to be no mechanism within a QES that would allow for any such confirmation. 

The question therefore remains: can an e-witness ever completely dispense of the need for a physical witness? HM Land Registry have announced that they are currently working on being in a position to accept QESs, so it is quite possible that the answer to the above will be 'yes'. Only time will tell...

If you would like more information on e-signatures please contact myself or your usual Charles Russell Speechlys contact. For more information on our Real Estate services, click here.