This article briefly considers how electronic signatures may be used for contracts governed by English law, at a time when signatories may be forced to sign documents remotely.
Generally speaking, in English law a contract can be concluded by offer and acceptance. That does not require a signature, although of course in most formal commercial contracts the parties choose to sign the documents in order to evidence their authentication of the contractual document and assent to its terms. In this situation, an electronic signature of any kind will be legally effective to conclude the contract, so long as:
However, as we discuss below, the law occasionally requires a signature for a particular kind of contract or clause within a contract. That situation would require further evaluation.
The EU eIDAS Regulation , which currently remains part of English law, and The Electronic Communications Act 2000 provide that all kinds of electronic signature are admissible in evidence. This means that they can be adduced in court as evidence of intent to authenticate the document. Since it is open to the opposing party to submit contrary evidence, from a practical perspective it is sensible to use a formalised signing platform that logs the fact of the signature, how it took place and what was signed.
Electronic signatures are commonly used in England for the execution of documents. For most types of contract, in the absence of a mandatory signature requirement, they are likely to be valid and enforceable, subject to usual contractual requirements such as the intention of the signer to authenticate the document and (for a legal entity), the authority of the signatory.
(1) An electronic signature is capable in law of being used to execute a document (including a deed) provided that (i) the person signing the document intends to authenticate the document and (ii) any formalities relating to execution of that document are satisfied.
(2) Such formalities may be required under a statute or statutory instrument, or may be laid down in a contract or other private law instrument under which a document is to be executed. The following are examples of formalities that might be required: (i) that the signature be witnessed; or (ii) that the signature be in a specified form (such as being handwritten).
(3) An electronic signature is admissible in evidence in legal proceedings. It is admissible, for example, to prove or disprove the identity of a signatory and/or the signatory’s intention to authenticate the document.
(4) Save where the contrary is provided for in relevant legislation or contractual arrangements, or where case law specific to the document in question leads to a contrary conclusion, the common law adopts a pragmatic approach and does not prescribe any particular form or type of signature. In determining whether the method of signature adopted demonstrates an authenticating intention the courts adopt an objective approach considering all of the surrounding circumstances.
(5) The Courts have, for example, held that the following non-electronic forms amount to valid signatures:
(a) signing with an ‘X’;
(b) signing with initials only;
(c) using a stamp of a handwritten signature;
(d) printing of a name;
(e) signing with a mark, even where the party executing the mark can write; and
(f) a description of the signatory if sufficiently unambiguous, such as “Your loving mother” or “Servant to Mr Sperling”.
(6) Electronic equivalents of these non-electronic forms of signature are likely to be recognised by a court as legally valid. There is no reason in principle to think otherwise.
(7) The courts have, for example, held that the following electronic forms amount to valid signatures in the case of statutory obligations to provide a signature where the statute is silent as to whether an electronic signature is acceptable:
(a) a name typed at the bottom of an email;
(b) clicking an “I accept” tick box on a website; and
(c) the header of a SWIFT message.
Board and shareholder resolutions should be valid if signed using electronic signatures and it will be possible to sign most resolutions remotely (using board and shareholder written resolutions) and separately (if directors are in different places).
The validity of electronic signatures under English law for each type of contract needs to be considered. That includes other formalities and considerations beyond signatures themselves. This would include:
Importantly, these require deeds (a formal UK document commonly used, amongst other reasons, for land and bank security arrangements) to be signed in the presence of a witness if signed by a sole director or by an individual.
The England and Wales Law Commission Statement referenced above separately concluded that under the current law, the requirement that a deed must be signed in the presence of a witness requires the physical presence of that witness. It is not clear whether a deed can be validly signed in the physical presence of a witness where the parties are using electronic signatures and/or an electronic signature platform, and 'wet-ink' signatures may still be required.
Under English law and for contracts governed by English law, contracts entered into by overseas (non-UK) legal entities generally need to be executed by those entities in accordance with the law of the place of their incorporation and/or by a person authorised under that law.
If you are entering into a contract with a company incorporated outside the UK, you should take legal advice in that company's jurisdiction of incorporation to confirm that the use of electronic signatures will not impact on the validity of the contract.
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Last reviewed 17 March 2020.
 Regulation (EU) No 910/2014 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 July 2014 on electronic identification and trust services for electronic transactions in the internal market
 Sections 43-48 Companies Act 2006
 Section 4 Overseas Companies (Execution of Documents and Registration of Charges) Regulations 2009
 Law of Property (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1989
 Overseas Companies (Execution of Documents and Registration of Charges) Regulations 2009