Please note this guidance does not apply to signing of wills
It’s a tricky question as to how to go about signing documents during the coronavirus pandemic. In normal times your lawyer might ask you to pop in to see them to sign official documents, but if you’re self-isolating (or even just maintaining sensible social distancing) then that’s just not going to be practical.
Does everyone signing a document need to sign the same copy?
Whilst it is common practice to ask all the parties to a document to sign the same copy, there is often no legal requirement for this to be the case. In fact, for some documents, the law specifically says that the document can be signed in multiple copies.
Can I just send my lawyer a scanned copy of my signature?
A scanned copy of a signature pasted in will be sufficient for some documents, but for others (such as Land Registry deeds) it won’t be. This option is probably best avoided.
Can someone else sign on my behalf?
Generally speaking, most documents that require your signature must be signed by you personally unless you have Power of Attorney in place allowing someone else to sign.
However, there are some circumstances in which documents can be signed by your lawyer on your behalf, so if getting a signed document to your lawyer is going to be problematic, you should have a conversation with them about this option.
What if my signature needs to be witnessed?
For some documents (e.g. leases or Land Registry transfer deeds) you have to have a witness to your signature. The witness will then be expected to sign the document themselves and print their name and address.
The main point to note is that the witness cannot be another party to the document. For example, the landlord of a property cannot be the witness to the tenant’s signature on lease.
Can my spouse or partner be the witness?
Generally, your lawyer will tell you that the witness cannot be a family relative. And whilst this is definitely best practice (so as to maintain some independence of the witness), it is not actually a legal requirement. As such, if you’re self-isolating and you need a witness to your signature, then using someone in the same household is probably sensible in the circumstances – even if it is your spouse or partner.
What about one of my children?
Normally, your lawyer will tell you that the witness has to be an adult, as the witness needs to be of sufficient maturity and understanding to be a reliable witness if questions arise in the future surrounding the signing of the document. And again, whilst this is definitely best practice, there does not appear to be any actual legal rule against minors being the witness. As such, if the only other person in your household is (for example) your 16 or 17 year old child, it may still be preferable in the circumstances for them to act as the witness rather than getting in someone from outside.
Must the witness be physically present?
For documents that must be signed in front of a witness, the witness must be physically present at the point that the document is signed. It is worth noting that the law in this regard dates from a time before things like Zoom, Facetime or Skype, so it is unknown whether watching someone sign a document over a video calling app would be enough for the witness to be ‘physically present’. Interestingly, the witness does not need to sign at the same time, so maybe an argument could be made that it would be enough to sign a document over Zoom in front of your lawyer, and then post it to them to act as a witness (although this is by no means certain).
Once I’ve signed a document, how do I get it back to my lawyer?
There is some debate about whether copies of signed documents can take effect as though they were the originals, so if you can post your signed document back to your lawyer, then that should be considered best practice.
However, if that is just not feasible, then a joint working party of the Law Society Company Law Committee and the Company Law and Financial Law Committees of the City of London Law Society (CLLS) published a guidance note containing an option that may be of help.
1. Once the terms of the document are finalised, your lawyer should email you a copy.
2. You should then print off and sign the execution page (making sure your signature is witnessed if required). That signed execution page should then be scanned in.
3. You should then send your lawyer an email attaching both (a) the original whole document, and (b) the scanned signature page.
4. You should make it clear in your email that you intend the signature page to be for the attached whole document.
This won’t work for documents that need to be filed with Companies House or the Land Registry unfortunately.
We recognise that it is an unprecedented situation for everyone, and whilst the comments in the note address some of the common queries, they don’t address everything. As such, if you have concerns about signing or dealing with documents during the pandemic, then you should speak to your lawyer.
*EDIT – Since first publishing this blog in April, the Land Registry has revised its own guidance, and will accept some documents signed using the ‘Mercury signature’ process (i.e. the CLLS process outlined above). It will also accept documents signed electronically, but that requires dedicated software. In all cases, the signing parties must have legal representatives. The full guidance on what is/is not acceptable can be found in Land Registry Practice Guide 8.