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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

Related FAQs

What happens if an employee refuses to attend work because they are afraid of being exposed to COVID-19 particularly the new more transmissible strain?

An employee can refuse to attend work but their refusal to do so will have to be based on a reasonable belief that their health and safety is in danger.  Whether or not their refusal is reasonable will take into consideration factors such as the employee’s own health and whether they are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract Covid-19 and the steps their employer has out in place to mitigate the danger of contracting Covid-19 at work.

In such circumstances where the employee’s belief is deemed to be reasonable, they will be entitled to stay at home and receive full pay.

If an employee is subsequently dismissed for refusing to attend work in these circumstances, they may be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal.

What rules has the European Commission introduced?

The Commission has provided guidance as to measures which Member States can introduce without notification. These include:

  • Measures which apply to all businesses within a Member State (for example the furloughing measures introduced by the UK Government)
  • Measures providing support direct to consumers
  • Measures which are already exempt from the notification requirement (discussed further below).

To respond to the crisis the European Commission has also issued a temporary framework to provide a basis for emergency aid to be notified for approval. The framework is initially in place until 31 December 2020. The Commission continues to keep this under review and has twice widened its scope to allow more types of aid to be notified. The type of measures covered include:

  • The provision of guarantees (including guarantees for 100% of loans)
  • The provision of loans at low interest rates, at zero interest rates or subordinated to senior debt
  • Measures to support liquidity needs or to alleviate difficulties caused by the current crisis
  • Measures to recapitalise businesses
  • Measures to assist sectors hit particularly hard by the current crisis (eg transport)
  • Measures targeted at COVID-19 such as research and development or production of products related to tackling the virus

The Commission has approved a UK Government “umbrella” notification to allow UK public authorities to adopt the measures permitted by the Commission framework. Therefore public authorities in the UK can use the Framework without notifying individual measures or schemes to the Commission.

I'm a doctor. What should I do if I think I may be infected with coronavirus?

The GMC recognises the challenges the doctors may face as the situation continues to develop. This includes concerns about the risks to the health of the doctors when treating patients with coronavirus. Doctors should follow the current public health advice including self-isolating if they know or suspect that they are infected or are at a higher risk of infection.

 

Finally, all necessary steps should be taken to ensure that doctors have access to protective equipment and minimise the risk of transmission when treating patients. It is imperative that a record is kept of all decisions made and how any safety or health concerns have been handled.

 

The GMC continues to work with NHS England and UK’s Chief Medical Officers to provide updates and advice to all doctors as the situation develops. Click here for more information.

How does COVID-19 affect Right to Work checks?

All employers have a duty to prevent illegal working, and carrying out proper Right to Work checks are a fundamental part of this. In light of Covid-19, the Home Office has brought in some temporary measures for employers to use to carry out the requisite Right to Work checks. Failure to follow these could lead to enforcement action and penalties.

What rate of pay applies to an employee returning from statutory leave who is furloughed?

Statutory leave includes family related leave, sick leave or parental bereavement leave. Claims for furloughed individuals returning from statutory leave should be based on their salary, before tax, and not the pay they received while on statutory leave.

Similarly, claims for furloughed employees returning from a period of unpaid leave on sabbatical should be based on their pay they would have had on paid leave.