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Can I have legal documents signed and witnessed?

Solicitors can be authorised to sign contracts for their clients – a signed letter of authority should be scanned and sent to avoid posting potentially contaminated documents.

Solicitors should exchange supplemental agreements on behalf of their clients to agree to postpone exchange and completion dates if it has been agreed to push these back.

The Law Society advises that electronic signatures be used as much as possible for contracts, to avoid possible contamination. However, the Land Registry confirms that the legal transfer document cannot be validly executed with an electronic signature. Solicitors should agree a completion undertaking that the original transfer document will be sent when received and after the restrictions have been lifted.

The Land Registry’s latest guidance https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-impact-on-hm-land-registrys-services published on 14 May states:

We accept deeds that have been signed using the ‘Mercury signing approach’.

For land registration purposes, a signature page will need to be signed in pen and witnessed in person (not by a video call). The signature will then need to be captured, with a scanner or a camera, to produce a PDF, JPEG or other suitable copy of the signed signature page. Each party sends a single email to their conveyancer to which is attached the final agreed copy of the document and the copy of the signed signature page.

Solicitors should be willing to adopt this procedure for completing transactions to enable them to be registered by the Land Registry.

The execution of a transfer is a deed and must be witnessed. Members of the family can witness signatures so long as they are not also a party to the document. A witness will be more credible if they are 18 or over, but this is not a legal requirement. The legal requirement is for the witness “to be present” when the document is signed. It would be possible for a witness to be on the other side of the room or the other side of a window, and validly witness the execution of a deed. The witness does need to take precautions to avoid possible contamination from the document.

A statutory declaration does not need to be witnessed but must be administered by a solicitor or commissioner for oaths. There is no legally prescribed process for this, and there is nothing to suggest that this could not be validly done via a video telephone call if the signature on the declaration can clearly be seen by the person commissioning the oath when the oath is made.

Related FAQs

What amount do you claim under the Flexible Furlough Scheme?

You will claim a pro rata’d amount of 80% of salary, based on the proportion of hours not worked out of the employee’s normal working hours (their “usual” hours).

There are 2 ways to calculate an employee’s usual hours, depending on whether they have fixed or variable hours/pay:

  • For those with fixed hours/pay, you take the number of hours worked in the pay period before 19 March 2020.
  • For those with variable hours/pay, you take the higher of:
  1. the average number of hours worked in the tax year 2019 to 2020 or
  2. the corresponding calendar period in the tax year 2019 to 2020.

If employees are paid per task or piece of work done, you should work out the usual hours for these employees in the same way as for other employees who work variable hours, if possible.

When you calculate the usual hours, you should include any hours of leave for which they were paid their full contracted rate (such as annual leave) and any hours worked as overtime (but only if the pay for those hours was not discretionary).

What is the penalty for failing to comply with the individual consultation obligations?

Failure to comply with the individual consultation obligations could render the dismissal unfair and expose you to a financial penalty of the lower of up to 1 years gross pay or the maximum statutory limit (currently £88,519).

Which publicly funded organisations can consider furlough?

Some employers falling into the third group of organisations described above could understandably feel aggrieved that on the first reading of the guidance they are not able to furlough employees and rely on the Government scheme. Many publicly funded organisations that are not public sector employers, receive a package of public funding with little expectation on how that funding is used or applied, other than broadly for it to be used in providing the services it is contracted to deliver. Also, several publicly funded organisations have many different income streams and the element of funding that is received from the public purse can be only an element of their operating costs.

Unfortunately there is still no clear guidance on when employers falling into the third category identified above can use the scheme. The only reference in the guidance on this states that where organisations are not “primarily funded” from the public purse and whose staff cannot be redeployed to assist with the coronavirus response, the scheme might be appropriate to be used for some staff. This seems to suggest that where an employing organisation is not wholly or mainly funded by public funding and staff cannot be redeployed to work in areas in the effort to combat coronavirus, then it would be appropriate for the employer to access the scheme.

If considering applying for grants under the scheme a sensible approach would be to look at the combined total of your public funding and payments under the scheme and make sure it will not represent more than 100% of the level of total income you would have expected to receive during this period in a non-Covid scenario.

Local Authorities are expected to maintain support to suppliers and this should be considered:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/874178/PPN_02_20_Supplier_Relief_due_to_Covid19.pdf

The Media

The BBC

The national broadcaster’s collated content surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/coronavirus

and with regards to business:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business

How might the transition to a "new normal" impact on contracts?

The workplace will not revert to its pre-Covid-19 state overnight, with social distancing in the work place likely to remain in place for quite some time to come.

This could mean that businesses will need to think carefully about how their capacity will be impacted, and how this will affect their ability to perform contractual obligations.

For example, if a business has an outsourcing contract under which it has to perform a business process, or produce a particular output, will it be able to comply with contractual performance standards whilst social distancing is still in place? In the context of a manufacturing business, what will be the impact on production schedules and delivery dates? There might also be an impact on operating costs, for example if processes are changed and additional shifts are introduced – can these additional costs be sustained?

Businesses need to plan a safe system of work for their employees to ensure they comply with Health and Safety legislation, but they also need to consider how this will impact on their ability to perform pre-existing contractual obligations. Ultimately, contractual arrangements with customers might need to remain on a revised footing for a number of months.

Getting to a point where agreement is reached on allocation of additional costs and/or changes to key elements of a contract such as scope of work, performance standards and delivery date will require co-operation between contracting parties. Again, it is important that any variations that are agreed are recorded properly and follow the required contractual procedures.