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Expert group issues interim report on e-signatures

Digital identities should be made available as a matter of priority to anyone who wants one to facilitate the uptake of electronic signing, the expert Industry Working Group on Electronic Execution of Documents has said.

Its interim report said: “Numerous uncertainties existed which have hindered the use of eSignatures and limited the confidence of professionals and individuals in their use.”

The group comprises Lord Justice Birss, Mr Justice Fraser and Professor Sarah Green and was convened following a recommendation by the Law Commission, which had concluded electronic signatures were valid for the vast majority of business transactions and legal processes.

They said the law provides for three levels of electronic signature; simple or standard; advanced electronic signature (AES); qualified electronic signature (QES).

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In the interim report they sought to “de-mystify electronic signatures and demonstrate how they can be incorporated into transactions of all kinds, including those involving vulnerable individuals”

The working group said making digital identities available to all would “facilitate the uptake of electronic signing, particularly QES, and help modernise the approach to execution of documents in general”.

It said: “The group supports the concept that QES, particularly if underpinned by a regulated digital identify trust framework, would be capable of fulfilling the same objectives as physical witnesses and attestation of documents, such as deeds.”

There should be a cross-border database of permissible regulatory and execution modes, starting with major trading partners.

Government should adopt the use of electronic signatures in its transactions with third parties, and ensure that as many official documents as possible, can be executed electronically, such as lasting powers of attorney and wills, the report said.

If the Government acted as an ‘early adopter’ it would encourage the widest possible use of electronic signatures within society, ultimately saving costs and time, and demonstrating that this jurisdiction is fully embracing digital capabilities”.

Justice minister Lord Wolfson 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.”

In the next phase of its work, the group will focus on the use of electronic signatures in cross-border transactions and how to guard against the risk of fraud.

Mark Smulian

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