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A sign of the times – Land Registry start accepting electronic signatures

The Land Registry has announced this morning that, with immediate effect and until further notice, they will accept for registration transfers, leases and certain other deeds which have been electronically signed.

Twelve weeks ago, when the Land Registry announced that they would register deeds which had been signed ‘virtually’ using the “Mercury” protocol, practitioners across the industry breathed a sigh of relief that a method of signing which had been in use for more than a decade was finally being recognised by the Land Registry. Now, with speed that would have been hard to imagine prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the way has been opened for e-signed deeds to be used for registrable transactions as well.

The Land Registry’s move will be widely welcomed in the real estate market – and is one which will have long term effects even when the current difficulties arranging hard copy signings have eased. The use of electronic signing platforms has already gained significant traction over the months of lockdown, but the inability to use them for transactions involving Land Registry registration meant they could only ever be a ‘bonus method’ available for certain types of document. Now we expect many of our clients to adopt electronic signing as their default method of execution.

Needless to say, there are important caveats which must be borne in mind. No particular signing platforms are endorsed or preferred by the Land Registry, but their updated practice guide stipulates a number of requirements which must be met. These include:

  • All parties must agree to the use of electronic signatures and the platform being used. (Note this does not mean that every party has to use the same platform or indeed sign electronically; it is still open for different parties to sign counterparts using different methods.)
  • All parties must have conveyancers acting for them.
  • A conveyancer must be responsible for setting up and controlling the signing process.
  • A number of prescribed steps for the signing and dating process need to be followed. In particular signatories and witnesses will be required to enter a ‘one-time password’ (two factor authentication) sent to them by text message in order to access the platform.

Whilst the Land Registry has addressed a number of the immediate issues, there remain some difficulties arising from a mismatch between some electronic platforms’ two factor authentication processes and the prescribed steps which the Land Registry require to be followed. The concerns, which relate to confidentiality of the final signed document, may mean that for the time being, where a party’s execution method requires the use of witnesses, parties may not be comfortable adopting e-signing for those transactions.

Nevertheless, today will be looked back on as a somewhat momentous day in the history of conveyancing. Electronic signing looks set to become part of the ‘new normal’ in the real estate world.