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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