A new report has been submitted to the UK government on best practices for the use of electronic signatures in trade and commerce.

The interim report, published this week by the Industry Working Group on Electronic Execution of Documents, offers an analysis of current e-signature use in England and Wales, and an overview of the legal framework that underpins it.

It then goes on to identify simple best practice guidance based on existing technology, and makes recommendations for future interventions and reform that could accelerate mass adoption.

In its concluding remarks, the report reiterates the manifold benefits of electronic execution of documents – including speed, clarity, simplicity, and security – and emphasises that, in the UK, the building blocks for widespread adoption are already in place.

“Appropriate electronic signatures are a safe and effective way of entering into legally binding transactions of all kinds,” the report notes.

“These include anything from major financial transactions to the sale of goods to consumers. 

“The technology and legal framework already exist to allow electronic signing by anyone from a major corporation to an individual.”

For example, HM Land Registry – the UK’s titling agency – already permits sales of property to be conducted using an electronic signature, and is currently conducting a pilot to remove the need for witnessing certain documents.

As such, the report concludes that the technology can be adopted by legal and business professionals “without difficulty”. 

“The foundations necessary for a cultural shift in document execution are already present,” the authors note. 

“The group’s clear view is that electronic signatures can and should be used today on a wide scale, and that members of society should have confidence in doing so.” 

“To achieve this, widespread adoption requires an increase in the awareness of what can already be done, how it can be done, and the advantages of doing so.” 

“The group is committed to doing everything it can to facilitate this transformation.”

Working Group authors Justice Fraser, Lord Justice Birss, Professor Sarah Green.

Ministry of Justice applauds

In a press statement, the UK’s Ministry of Justice said it welcomes the interim report, and is grateful for the group’s work, which will assist in informing the future use and uptake of e-signatures by government and others.

It also said that the Working Group, which was convened following a recommendation from the Law Commission, is vital to ensure that the UK remains a centre for legal excellence, and that the English and Welsh jurisdiction continues to pioneer the adoption of emerging technologies in digital trade and commerce.

Lord David Wolfson, parliamentary under secretary of state, said: “We in government are excited about the potential benefits of new, digital ways of working, and I welcome in particular the best practice guidance put forward by the group, which will help increase confidence in and encourage uptake of electronic signatures.

“I am committed to ensuring the UK jurisdiction remains at the forefront of adapting to digital innovation, so that we can best capture the opportunities this offers for our businesses and citizens.”

Next steps

Following the publication of the interim report, the Working Group will now focus on its remaining Terms of Reference. 

In doing so, it will consider the challenges arising from the use of electronic signatures in cross-border transactions and how to address them, and how best to use electronic signatures to optimise their benefits while minimising the risk of fraud.