Can I get contracts signed electronically if signatories are working remotely?
With the outbreak of coronavirus leading to a requirement for more employees to be working remotely, especially following Government advice that all non-essential travel including to and from work should be avoided, there has been an increased requirement for businesses to be more flexible in their approach to signing contracts.
The traditional approach has been for contracts to be printed and signed with a “wet ink” signature. However, this is not a strict legal requirement in the majority of circumstances and contracts can be formed without this degree of formality. English law recognises that contracts can be formed by electronic means – including the exchange of emails or the typing of a name into a document to signify agreement to it.
Whilst this approach offers a lot of flexibility, more sophisticated electronic signature tools are recommended for important documents, to enable the identity of the signatory to be validated and reduce the possibility of fraud.
If businesses are considering changing their contracting processes because of coronavirus, or because of a general shift towards paperless working, it is important to ensure that proper approval processes remain in place, and to consider whether a software tool should be used to complement them. Systems such as DocuSign are widely used.
There also remain some situations where legal advice is recommended before relying on an electronic signature:
- Where the other party is abroad – as local laws that are different from English law might apply
- If executing a deed – the law requires certain types of document to be executed as a deed (for example, transfers of land and powers of attorney), and the issues around electronic signature and witnessing are more complicated here
The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) issued guidance mid-April confirming that you can move to a friend’s address for several days to “cool off” following an argument at home. You should strongly consider either yourself or your spouse moving elsewhere where children are involved as it prevents the children from witnessing conflict within the home, at what is already an emotionally charged time for them. Nevertheless, you should also consider and take legal advice on the financial implications of either of you or your partner moving out and how contact with the children is going to be promoted with both parents, if suitable. The Government Guidance has confirmed that children can be moved between households if they have separated parents.
It is still possible to issue Divorce proceedings and much of the process has now been taken online. The main divorce suit is dealt with separately to the separation of financial assets and children arrangements, which can often take much longer to review and discuss. While staff shortages may mean slower turn-around times there is no reason to suspect that a divorce will not otherwise go ahead as anticipated. Once coronavirus has passed, it is likely that divorce rates will spike and there will be an increased demand on the Court system, so your divorce process may take longer if you delay filing your divorce.
It is also still possible to issue Court Applications regarding any financial settlements or children arrangements, however, the Court system was already under significant pressure before coronavirus, so the pandemic will only add to that and we expect Court processes to significantly be slower in those areas.
Court Applications should in any event be used as a last resort and there are alternative dispute resolution processes available which you should consider, including Arbitration and Mediation. Family lawyers are continuing to advise and assist individuals, manage their separations and can provide information about the options available, using alternative methods of communication such as Teams, Skype or Zoom for clients. Understandably, speaking aloud may be difficult in circumstances where you are not able to get any private time away from your spouse due to you being in lockdown and so email correspondence may be the most appropriate method of communication.
Employees who are union or non-union representatives may undertake duties and activities for the purpose of individual or collective representation of employees or other workers. However in doing this, they must not provide services to or generate revenue for, or on behalf of your organisation or a linked or associated organisation.
Employees who are pension scheme trustees or trustee directors of a corporate trustee may also undertake trustee duties in relation to the pension scheme. However, a professional, independent pension scheme trustee who has been furloughed by the independent trustee company cannot undertake trustee work that would provide services to or generate revenue for, or on behalf of, the independent trustee company or any organisation linked or associated with that independent trustee company during hours when they are recorded as being on furlough.
From 8 June 2020, people entering the UK from overseas (excluding those entering from Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man) must comply with a mandatory 14 day quarantine period. However, for those travelling to England, a number of country specific exemptions have been introduced.
A full list of the countries excluded from the quarantine provisions can be found on the gov.uk website which change on a regular basis, often on short notice.
Where a quarantine period does apply, a person will not be able to leave the place they are staying in for 14 days, except in some very limited circumstances.
These rules will apply to both British and foreign nationals, however there are some further exemptions to this rule where a person is coming to the UK to undertake a certain role (such as a healthcare professional coming to the UK to provide essential healthcare). A full list of the narrow exemptions can be found on the gov.uk website.
Before travelling, individuals will be asked to provide their contact details and information about their journey and the accommodation that they will be self-isolating in. To do this, individuals will need to fill in an online form on the gov.uk website. Individuals who refuse to fill in this form may be fined £100 and/or denied entry at the UK border should they not be a British citizen or UK resident.
The information provided in the form will ensure that the Government can check that an individual is self-isolating at the address given. Where an individual refuses to self-isolate they can be fined £1,000 if they are staying in England or Wales.
Once visa application centres re-open overseas and UK visa applications are processed, this 14 day period will need to be taken into consideration and may require employment start dates in the UK to be delayed.
The Chancellor confirmed that payments under the scheme would not be available immediately.
Ultimately closing a service will be a decision that is taken at the highest level and that decision will depend on risk appetite. Often these types of higher risk are mitigated by way of insurance but that still depends on an insurer being willing to accept that risk. This decision will depend on accepting a known risk and its consequences.