Land Registry and electronic signatures update

28 July, 2020

There is no escape from the fallout caused by the Coronavirus pandemic and our world-rated, venerable HM Land Registry is no exception.

Founded over 150 years ago, HMLR has clung onto its requirement for ‘wet ink’ signatures on paper documents while the rest of the world moved on.

During lockdown, working from home with a shortage of IT equipment, HMLR people walked in our shoes and agreed to abandon this totemic requirement for a temporary period ‘until further notice’.

In May, HMLR dipped its toe in the 21st century by allowing Mercury virtual signatures on dispositionary deeds, such as transfers and leases, and some other documents such as powers of attorney.  The name Mercury derives from a case in 2008 concerning signatures.  Mercury virtual signatures are the process by which the signatory is sent an email attaching a PDF of a document.  The signatory prints the signature page, signs it and attaches a PDF or photograph of that page to their reply email.  The original signed document is the email with the two attachments, the document and the signed signature page.  This is a somewhat complex and cumbersome solution.

Mercury virtual signatures are not to be confused with electronic signatures.

For some time, HMLR has been working to develop its own secure internal system of electronic signatures and this work continues.  However, the circumstances of the pandemic have now pressured HMLR into accepting electronic signatures from commercial providers, such as DocuSign and Adobe Sign for a temporary period starting 27 July 2020.  The electronic signature provider creates a special version of the document with fields for entering dates and signatures.  This is emailed to the signatories in the order specified.  Two factor authentication, such as that used for online banking, must be used.  The document in the commercial providers’ platform is the original, any prints or PDFs or electronic copies are merely copies.  This solution is not perfect in every situation, there are issues but enhancements are in development.

For several years, electronic signatures have been used as standard in many areas of law and business but we should not underestimate the magnitude of this policy decision for HMLR.