COVID-19: Signing documents in a pandemic

What to do when signatories are isolated or scattered

All over the world, the normal patterns of life have been disrupted, but business must go on and documents must be signed – contracts, deeds, notices, corporate documents…

In an age, though, of social distancing, travel restrictions, working from home, isolation, quarantine and lockdowns, signatories are scattered far and wide. How can they still sign? This unprecedented situation has brought with it many new challenges. During this period, Allens has continued to agitate for law reform on this front and several changes have now been implemented across federal and state legislation. Below you will find updates on the latest legislative changes, as well as questions and answers relating to signing documents in a pandemic. You are also invited to view a webinar from Allens Senior Finance Counsel, Diccon Loxton, on this topic.

 

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Latest developments

25/05/20 - Great news in Queensland on electronic and remotely witnessed documents

Under its emergency legislation, the Queensland Government has introduced a temporary regulation dealing with requirements for deeds, general powers of attorney and mortgages, and the electronic signing and remote witnessing of statutory declarations, affidavits, wills and enduring powers of attorney (the Justice Legislation (COVID-19 Emergency Response—Wills and Enduring Documents) Amendment Regulation 2020).

It's extremely welcome, particularly in relation to that old bugbear – deeds.

Queensland now the preferred governing law for deeds — deeds can be electronic

The Regulation makes sweeping reforms of the law relating to deeds, removing many of the difficulties, and it is drafted plainly and clearly.

While this is temporary, there is some hope that much of it may become permanent as a number of points reflect a report prepared by Queensland University of Technology on the Property Law Act (others reflect concerns that we have raised).

The clarity of the changes should remove any doubts about electronic deeds in Queensland. Those looking for reasons why deeds governed by Queensland law cannot be electronic should find the challenge insurmountable. This includes Queensland law deeds signed under section 127 of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth).

Among other things the regulation expressly:

  • allows a deed to be made or signed electronically (and removes the requirements for a deed to be made on paper or parchment);
  • allows a deed to be signed without a witness;
  • removes the requirement for a deed to be sealed or deemed to be sealed; and
  • allows any corporation to sign deeds (without a seal) by two directors, a director and a secretary, or a sole director and secretary (this is consistent with s127 of the Corporations Act) and to sign deeds in any other manner allowed by law.

The above includes foreign corporations and statutory corporations incorporated anywhere in Australia.

In addition, it:

  • allows foreign corporations to sign according to the law of their place of incorporation and statutory corporations to sign according to their statute;
  • allows a deed to be signed by split execution and in counterparts; and
  • allows an agent to sign a deed even where the agent has not been appointed under seal.

It does require:

  • a deed to be in writing and contain a conspicuous statement indicating that it is executed as a deed;
  • a deed to be delivered as under existing law (note this can be done without physical delivery); and
  • electronic signatures to satisfy tests as to identity and reliability similar to the electronic transactions legislation and similar emergency legislation in other jurisdictions (but it does not require the other party's consent to electronic signature). These tests are generally easily satisfied.

It does not expressly deal with partnerships.

In general, this makes Queensland the most favourable governing law for deeds during the temporary regime, followed by Victoria, then New South Wales.

General powers of attorney

Similar changes are made for general powers of attorney.

Mortgages

The Regulation provide that certain mortgages of land can be created electronically and registered.

Audiovisual witnessing

On electronic signing, the Regulation allows for electronic signing and remote witnessing by audiovisual means of affidavits, statutory declarations, enduring powers of attorney and wills.

There are procedural requirements for audiovisual witnessing, and only limited classes of people (such as lawyers etc) may act as a witness by audiovisual means.

The remote witnessing requirements are similar to those introduced in New South Wales but require qualified witnesses like legal practitioners. That is less of a concern, as under the Regulation witnessing is no longer a requirement for deeds and powers of attorney (and affidavits and statutory declarations already require qualified witnesses).

12/05/20 - Good news in Victoria on electronic deeds and remote witnessing

Under its COVID-19 emergency legislation, Victoria has introduced temporary regulations allowing for:

  • the electronic execution of deeds and mortgages;
  • the remote witnessing of documents effecting transactions; and
  • the electronic execution and remote witnessing of powers of attorney, wills and statutory declarations (but not affidavits, which are covered in the emergency legislation itself).

The Regulations will expire on 24 October.

There are a number of points to note.

Electronic deeds OK

The provisions allowing electronic deeds (sections 5 and 6) operate by modifying the Electronic Transactions Act 2000 (Vic) but are clear — and should be sufficient to convince the most crusty die-hard. They apply whether the deed is signed by an individual or a corporation. This makes Victorian law a very attractive governing law for executing deeds. They don't need to be witnessed. They can now be electronic.

The provisions also apply to mortgages.

Electronic split execution OK, with procedural requirements

There is specific provision modifying the Electronic Transactions Act 2000 (Vic) to allow signatories required to sign the same document to sign different counterparts of the same document electronically (section 12). There is a procedural requirement that every signatory and every other party receives every electronically signed copy.

This provision may not have affected the issue whether section 127 of the Corporations Act 2001 can be satisfied by split execution, but the recent Determination by the Federal Treasurer (dealt with here) has solved that for now.

Counterparties might not be able to reject electronic signatures

The Regulations provide that the fact that a party proposes to sign electronically in a manner otherwise complying with the relevant requirements of the Victorian Electronic Transactions Act is not of itself sufficient reason for other parties to refuse the consent required under that Act to that electronic signature (section 11).

Signing documents (including deeds) electronically under power of attorney — a procedural trap for the unwary?

Perhaps unnecessarily, the Regulations say expressly that attorneys can sign documents electronically where the attorneys include a statement they are signing under the Regulations (section 35(2)). We were not aware of any doubt on that score.

What happens if an attorney now signs electronically without such a statement? Do we now need the statement? Is this a trap for young players (and old ones)?

In our reading, the Regulation should not limit the way documents can be signed — section 35(2) is inclusive, so generally documents should still be able to be executed electronically by an attorney without the statement where there is no other impediment. But where a document is executed during the currency of the Regulations by attorneys and Victorian law is relevant, for more abundant caution, it would be useful to include such a statement where feasible.

Audiovisual witnessing with few procedural requirements

The Act also provides for a mechanism for documents to be witnessed by audiovisual means.

In Victoria this does not apply generally to deeds, which do not need to be witnessed.

There are not as many requirements to be satisfied as there are in the New South Wales equivalent regulation, but the witness does need to state he or she is witnessing by audiovisual link in accordance with the Regulations.

6/5/20 - Treasurer modifies the Corporations Act to permit remote meetings and signing of documents

I am delighted to say that the Treasurer has introduced changes to the way companies can sign documents. The 'cautious optimism' I expressed in earlier emails after dealings with Treasury on the subject was not misplaced.

Using his power under emergency legislation, the Treasurer has issued a statutory instrument modifying the Corporations Act 2001 for a period of six months to provide for:

  • the electronic execution of documents by companies, and
  • general meetings and other meetings to be held remotely.
Signing documents in a pandemic

The instrument modifies sections 127(1) and 129(5) of the Act.

It expressly:

  • allows documents to be signed by companies under s127(1) electronically, so that two directors, a director and a secretary, or a sole director and secretary can sign in that way
  • provides for 'split execution' where the relevant officers of the company sign separate counterparts (physical or electronic), and
  • modifies the assumption in s129(5), so that parties dealing with companies may assume a document has been duly executed if it appears to have been executed under the modified s127(1).

This is a considerable advance. As we have previously noted, there has been widespread uncertainty as to whether this could be done. This has proved to be an enormous impediment during lockdown to the extent that, in some cases, parties have felt they need to get documents physically signed, despite the isolation.

As to what would constitute electronic signing, it tracks the language of the Electronic Transactions Act, including the tests as to identity and reliability. The language may look a little awkward in this context, but the tests in the ETA have been interpreted liberally by the courts (see my paper here). They should accommodate most common methods of electronic signing, generally without any other step. With 'pasting' of a copy of a signature into a document (not using an electronic signing platform or a stylus etc) in some circumstances it may be prudent to have evidence it was pasted by or with the authority of the signatory.

The modification does not expressly refer to s127(3) and deeds. In our view, it should allow electronic execution of deeds, but it remains to be seen whether others are convinced.

Corporate and creditors' meetings

The modification allows for all meetings provided for under the Act, the Regulations, the Insolvency Practice Rules and the Passport Rules to be held remotely by technologies that give all persons a reasonable opportunity to participate.

This will cover, for example, general meetings, scheme meetings and creditors' meetings. Notices of the meeting may be given electronically, proxies may be given electronically and votes may be taken using various technologies.

A copy of the official document from Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, can be found here.

30/4/20 - Progress in Victoria on enabling electronic execution, and on remote witnessing of affidavits

The Victorian Parliament has passed its emergency legislation, the COVID 19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Act 2020. It is the latest legislature to give the executive broad powers to amend legislation temporarily (the others being the Federal Government, Queensland and New South Wales).  

Section 4 allows the Victorian Government by regulation to modify or disapply any legislation administered by the Attorney General in relation to a wide range of issues. These include: the witnessing, execution or signing of legal documents such as affidavits, statutory declarations, deeds, powers of attorney, contracts or agreements, undertakings and wills; and also the process by which a document is given or issued.

That provision gives broad power to deal with the issues that have been concerning us, in particular, the creation of electronic deeds.

In addition, the Act provides for the remote witnessing of affidavits by audiovisual link, and the electronic execution and attestation of affidavits.

Green shoots on legislation or regulation in various states

Various states have circulated for comment, or are considering, their own proposals for emergency enabling legislation or for regulations concerning remote witnessing and/or electronic signature. We have made suggestions.

Electronic land dealings accepted in New South Wales

From 27 April, the NSW Conveyancing Rules, the Conveyancing Rules - (COVID-19 Pandemic) Amendment, have been temporarily amended to allow for land dealings to be signed electronically and for copies of the electronically signed dealings to be registered.

This follows the issue of the Electronic Transactions Amendment (COVID-19 Witnessing of Documents) Regulation 2020, which provides for witnessing via audiovisual link during the pandemic (see below). Both amendments will cease to apply on 23 October 2020 (subject to earlier repeal by Parliament).

The amendment to the Conveyancing Rules allows parties and witnesses to electronically sign land dealings, certain certificates and instruments lodged with deposited plans.

Anyone who signs electronically must confirm their identity and their intention to sign electronically by either:

  • including a statement near or above their electronic signature, or
  • using a digital signing platform that indicates on the instrument that an electronic signature was applied, and the date and time that this occurred.

The Office of the Registrar General has advised that these temporary changes do not alter any existing requirements for execution and certification, verification of identity or establishing the right to deal. It has published a Guidance Note on executing NSW paper land dealings during COVID-19 restrictions, providing further information as to how these steps can be completed for paper dealings during the pandemic.

Where electronic signing is chosen, the guidance says electronic signatures must comply with the requirements of Division 2 of Part 2 of the Electronic Transactions Act 2000 (NSW).

Still waiting for Commonwealth modifications of the signing provisions of the Corporations Act

We were cautiously optimistic after earlier discussions, but there has as yet been no apparent movement. The responsible minister is the Treasurer, who has an extraordinary amount on his plate.

That said, the Treasurer is placing pressure on the banks to accelerate loan transactions. But among the difficulties they face in doing so are the barriers and uncertainties relating to electronic execution of loan and security documents by companies — barriers and uncertainties he could remove quite simply, using powers granted under the emergency legislation.

In the absence of the Federal Government dealing with those issues, there are some steps the states can take to assist. The states in their regulations could expressly allow for electronic deeds, and for deeds to be signed without a seal by two directors or a director and a secretary. That would be of considerable assistance, though without all the advantages of a solution by the Federal Government. We are suggesting that be done.

23/4/20 - Progress in New South Wales on remote witnessing, but 'wait and see' on electronic deeds and electronic attestation

The NSW Government has released under its emergency power a regulation concerning remote witnessing – Electronic Transactions Amendment (COVID-19 Witnessing of Documents) Regulation 2020 (the Regulation).

It follows the consultation draft referred to in our earlier email, but only in part.

In broad terms, the Regulation allows for the remote witnessing of documents, which is a big step forward. It will be welcome in a wide range of fields, including litigation.

However, the consultation draft of the Regulation had also dealt with the electronic execution of deeds, and electronic attestation of electronic documents. These were not included in the final version. The Government said: 'We are continuing to consider reform options for electronic signature and execution of documents that are currently required to be prepared in hard copy'.

The Government is conducting a new round of consultation and consideration on those topics and has already kicked it off in an email to stakeholders. The intention is to complete it quickly.

The Regulation provides that:

  • documents that require a witness may be witnessed by audio visual link but there are a few requirements as to how this may be done that need to be fulfilled;
  • tasks in relation to witnessing a document may be performed by audio visual link;
  • written oaths, declarations or affidavits required for a purpose specified in section 26 of the Oaths Act 1900 may be taken or made before an Australian legal practitioner; and
  • a statutory declaration may be made before a person before whom a statutory declaration under the Statutory Declarations Act 1959 of the Commonwealth may be made.

The Regulation will expire on 26 September 2020, unless this date is changed by further regulation or a resolution of Parliament.

The Regulation did not remove the exclusion of witnessing from the operation of certain provisions of the Electronic Transactions Act 2000 (NSW). Our view is that, despite this, documents signed electronically can be witnessed and witnesses can sign electronically, but it remains to be seen how many hold that view. Legislative certainty is likely to be necessary.

As mentioned above, in terms of reform this is not the end of the line. We understand that the difficulty with extending electronic execution was that there may be some who are concerned about risks, and so the Government has decided to have a deeper look.

Understandably, there may be some resistance among certain stakeholders to electronic documents. There needs to be continued impetus to achieve the necessary changes so there is certainty in the market that corporations can create electronic deeds and that witnesses etc can sign electronically, and electronic signatures can be witnessed.

New Queensland emergency legislation gives sweeping power to amend the law relating to documents

The Queensland Parliament has passed new legislation: the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act 2020. Section 9 gives the Government the power by regulation to change statutes or common law relating to documents, including their preparation, signing, witnessing, registration and verification of identity. It is the most sweeping power of the various jurisdictions. Watch this space.

 

Your key questions answered on signing documents in a pandemic

Contact: Diccon Loxton
Last updated: 7 May 2020

Can you witness by Skype (or similar)?

In New South Wales, under emergency regulations issued on 22 April, remote witnessing by audio-visual link is permitted. There are a number of procedural requirements. The regulations are currently due to expire on 26 September unless extended.

In Queensland, remote witnessing by legal practitioners of dealings in land and water rights, which are to be registered, is being permitted by the Registrar. Again, there are procedural requirements.

Otherwise, where witnessing is a formal requirement, as it is with deeds in most jurisdictions (except Victoria), then it's risky.

Where it's not a formal requirement then you can have remote witnessing, or no witnessing at all. This is the case with most agreements. In fact, in the current environment, parties should reconsider requiring a witness when agreements are signed. Requiring witnessing can cause a great deal of pain for relatively little benefit.

What about affidavits and statutory declarations?

Generally, these can't be witnessed remotely (except in New South Wales). They need to be sworn or declared before a lawyer or a JP, meaning in their physical presence.

So, in relation to litigation, that's an issue. There are two different possible approaches.

One is to change the rules of the court, so it will accept other evidence (the Federal Court has just done this).

The other route is to change what the law requires in terms of affidavits and statutory declarations. This is what the New South Wales Government has done under temporary emergency regulations issued on 22 April 2020. Remote witnessing by audio-visual link is permitted. There are a number of procedural requirements. Other states may follow this example.

Can you remotely VOI (verify the identity) of someone who signs a mortgage?

In the current circumstances, that is a possibility.

The rules say that you need to take 'reasonable steps' to verify identity. What are 'reasonable steps'? The rules set out what is generally known as the VOI Standard — a 'safe harbour' setting out procedures that will be taken to satisfy the requirement. They involve face to face identification.

But what can you do when that's impossible? The answer is the VOI Standard isn't the only way of satisfying the 'reasonable steps' requirement. You can take other procedures, but you then take the risk as to what are 'reasonable steps'.

We asked ARNECC (the body charged with developing the national electronic conveyancing legal framework) what was acceptable in the current circumstances. They have come out with a guidance that does not really elaborate on what would be 'reasonable steps', though they do say subscribers may consider using video technology. Victoria and New South Wales have adopted that guidance.

In Western Australia, Landgate has released an update acknowledging difficulties in full face-to-face VOI processes as a result of COVID-19 and directed practitioners to take reasonable steps to verify identity. But that update did not expressly refer to video technology.

In the current circumstances it is difficult to see how it could not be reasonable to verify someone's identity remotely: to have the interview by video over Skype (or similar), to see the passport and license over Skype and to receive scanned copies of them.

Will the courts take a different attitude to risk in the current circumstances?

Judges would have current circumstances in mind, but they are confined by the relevant legislation and precedents which were set in normal circumstances.

Where the test they need to apply is what is 'reasonable' (as it would be in relation to the VOI requirements) they must take into account the surrounding circumstances, including that the parties are isolated.

What is the legal risk of a document being challenged? Is it borne by the signer or the other party?

On the vast majority of occasions, it is borne by the other party. Occasionally the risk is borne by signers because of their need to satisfy certain formal requirements and to demonstrate they have done so. 

Signers can usually be more relaxed. That doesn't mean signers can just do whatever they like. In some transactions (particularly in corporate loan transactions etc) it is very important for the other party to be satisfied at the outset that the signer has properly signed the document. In those cases, the parties should discuss their respective requirements and plans early on in the transaction.

What should we do about our policies and practices?

In the current circumstances, parties need to make balanced commercial decisions based on the risks and reassess their policies and practices. The desire for the perfect may drive out the good.

The solution needs to be appropriate to your business. Different solutions will be appropriate for different clients in different situations. There are many possible permutations and combinations to consider.  

We are helping a number of clients in this regard and would be pleased to help you.

Do lenders have to accept contracts if the contract signing meets the requirements of the ETA?

No, though they generally would accept them if they are satisfied the contracts are duly executed.

Can you cut and paste signatures?

Yes. While there is little case law on it, it is consistent with a lot of case law looking at various methods of signature.

But if, say, Polly Bloggs wants to sign in that way, it is only effective if her signature is pasted into the document by her or by someone with her authority, or she authenticates it afterwards. People may want a paper trail to show this was done, like emails from Polly to the person who pasted the signature.

In the current circumstances, this is a very attractive way of signing documents. There are very strong arguments that, done correctly, it may be a route to satisfying the requirements of section 127(1). This may also be a route to creating paper deeds, though this may not be accepted by everyone.

Can a company sign an agreement electronically even where it arguably might not satisfy section 127(1) of the Corporations Act?

Yes, and the signing can be done in many ways. The person signing needs to have been given authority to sign by the company. Deeds are a more complicated story.

Section 127(1) of the Corporations Act allows companies to sign documents by two directors or a director and a secretary.

It is useful because if they sign in that way, other parties can rely on an assumption in section 129(5) of the Corporations Act that the document has been properly executed. But it is not the only way companies can sign.

Our own view has been that electronic execution can satisfy s127(1) though others have disagreed.

This issue has been clarified for the next 6 moths. Under a Determination issued by the Treasurer under emergency legislation on 5 May, s127(1) and s129(5) are modified for that period to allow for electronic execution and split execution. Our view is this allows electronic signing of deeds but some others might disagree.

What do we do if we are dealing with a company that may not be signing under Section 127(1)?

If you are concerned about due execution and you don’t think you can rely on the signer having ostensible authority, then you need to obtain confirmation or evidence that the signer had authority. That might include extracts of board minutes.

You may not be able to rely on the assumption in s129(5), but you may still be able to rely on the other assumptions in s129.

Note that under the temporary Determination referred to above, it is now clear a company can sign electronically under s127(1), and s129(5) allows other parties to assume a document signed in that way has been duly executed.

If we are dealing with a company where all directors e-sign a document, can we rely on the assumptions in sections 129(1) and (2)?

Yes (in the absence of notice or suspicion to the contrary). And you may not need any other evidence of authority.

If we want to sign a loan agreement under s127(1) as borrower through two directors using DocuSign, what should we do?

Check early as to what the lender will require. While the temporary modification of s127 under the Determination outlined above is in place, they will probably accept that the document complies with section 127(1).

If for some reason they do still have a concern, then discuss solutions. For example, whether they are happy to rely on the 'backstop solution' (discussed below), and rely on a printout as an original. Some firms have been comfortable with that approach, but not all.

If the lender doesn't accept that this approach satisfies section 127(1), ask what it requires. It should be asking for evidence of authorisation of the directors to sign the contract to satisfy itself as to authority.

Traditionally this would be extracts of minutes or some other proof of authority. That accords with practice in other jurisdictions, but in Australia it may have the added advantage of being able to rely on the other assumptions in s129.

With deeds it may be more complex. Our view is that a deed may now be created in this way. But some lenders may not accept that.

If a document doesn't satisfy s127 and we're unsure about authority, is there any way we can say there has been acceptance by conduct?

The answer depends on the facts, but that may sometimes be the case, particularly when payment or performance occurs on signing.

Where the other party changes its position on the faith of the signature, there may be arguments the signing party is estopped from denying the effectiveness of its signature. On occasion, a party providing money on the faith of due execution may have restitutionary remedies.

These considerations may not always be reliable. In some recent cases arising out of forestry tax schemes, borrowers were able to deny execution even though they had the benefit of loans and had made the relevant claims for tax deduction, on the faith of expenditure funded by the loans.

I would love to hear a bit more about the law surrounding the 'backstop' for deeds and s127

The 'backstop' solution is to set things up so that a printout of a document signed through DocuSign or some other electronic means can be treated as an original and the signatures appearing on it deemed original signatures.

Even without relying on the modification contained in the Determination referred to above, the paper printout would be a 'document' and 'signed" for the purposes of sections 127(1) and 129(5), it could satisfy the requirement that a deed be paper, parchment or vellum.

That involves putting into the document some language to the effect that the relevant signers intend for their signature to appear on a printed copy of the document and the printed copy will be deemed an original document and the signatures appearing on it original signatures.

Effectively the whole system can be seen as a pen which the signatory uses to place his or her signature onto the printout.

We believe it is assisted by a couple of decisions; one in England and one in New South Wales where a person had signed a document then faxed it to somebody else and the faxed copy was held to be an original and duly executed by the person who sent the fax. The arguments are set out in detail in a paper by Diccon Loxton in the Australian Law Journal, available here (see pages 205-207).

What about a 'backstop' for deeds signed by attorneys or individuals?

With deeds signed by attorneys or individuals, similar approaches should work to satisfy the paper requirement, and may also work for other electronic methods. Any s127 objections do not exist. But others may not accept this approach.

We should say that our general view is, where the electronic legislation applies (the vast majority of cases), this is only necessary for more abundant caution.

The solution to any uncertainty is to have the deed governed by New South Wales law. See below.

Can you give analysis of Austin and Black's contrary opinion (that electronically signed documents might not satisfy s127)?

While the temporary modification of s127 under the Determination outlined above is in place, this is not a concern.

In essence, Austin and Black in their commentary  expressed some uncertainty as to whether an electronic document could be a 'document' under the section as unmodified. Looking at the definition and the detailed drafting of s127 as it was (and will be when the modification expires), they suggest it is directed at execution of physical documents. We respectfully disagree. The real purpose of the provision is to empower the relevant officers to bind the company, and not to focus on form.

The arguments are set out in a paper by Diccon Loxton on our website which can be found here (see pages 207-211).

We believe the 'backstop' solution outlined above would address their concerns.

Can you outline the relevance of the Pickard case?

One aspect of Pickard is that a document was purportedly executed under s127 by signatures being pasted in, but the court said there was no evidence those signatures were authorised or authenticated.

In the course of the decision, the court made a statement which has been taken by some as indicating that electronic signatures are not acceptable for the purposes of s127(1). See Bendigo and Adelaide Bank Ltd v Pickard [2019] SASC 123 at [70].

We do not read it in that way. However, the same statement may tip some cold water on the idea of split execution (where officers sign separate counterparts), but not modified split execution (discussed below).

While the temporary modification of s127 outlined above is in place, this is not a concern.

What happens when a company signs an electronic deed under a power of attorney in New South Wales, but it's not witnessed?

The good news is it doesn't matter that the deed is electronic. Under a new provision, section 38A of the Conveyancing Act 1919 (NSW), a deed signed by an individual can be electronic. That includes an individual acting as an attorney for a corporation, but it does not include execution by a company under s127.

The bad news is that it is not a valid deed because under NSW law a deed needs to be witnessed.

In Victoria, it's the opposite. There's no requirement of witnessing but there is also no express provision that says the deed doesn't have to be on paper.

With deeds signed by individuals you can 'forum shop' a bit — selecting the governing law of the deed in order to get the rules that best suit you in terms of how the document is to be signed.

Can you have 'remote execution' by signing printed out signature pages?

Yes. There are two main traps:

  • make sure the document is fully agreed, and you are all signing the same version.
  • With deeds and with documents 'spit executed' under section 127 of the Corporations Act (as temporarily modified), the entire document needs to be printed out and signed, not just the signature pages.
What about 'modified split execution'?

A variation on the remote execution theme, for documents which are to be signed by companies under s127, is 'modified split execution' (designed to avoid current uncertainty about 'split execution').

Under it, Director A signs a print-out of the document (or the signature pages), scans them and sends them to Director B who prints them out and signs a copy, which already incorporates Director A's signature. Many firms believe this is effective for the purposes of s127, and also for deeds.

It should be noted that under s127 as temporarily modified 'split execution', (where the two officers sign separate counterparts physically or electronically) works so long as the officers sign the entire document.

Can you give further information on the use of so-called 'mini-me' deeds to incorporate/execute longer documents by reference?

The above 'remote signing' procedures involve printing out and signing an entire deed. Particularly in the current circumstances, that may be difficult.

One option is to reduce the length of the deed that is being signed and have instead a 'mini-me' deed of about two or three pages. In that deed the parties agree to the terms of a longer document which is incorporated by reference.

When you are signing documents electronically, do you need to include specific language?

It never hurts but in most cases it's not absolutely necessary, except in certain circumstances when you want to rely on one of the procedures outlined in our webinar.

  • For the 'backstop' in relation to s127 or deeds (that is where you rely on a print-out being a paper original) you should include the relevant clarification.
  • If you are relying on the modified split execution method, it can be helpful to have language that makes it clear the first signer's intention was that the signature should appear in the printout and the other person will sign it.
Can you outline the conflict of laws issues between electronic signature acceptance in Australian jurisdictions, and the reluctance to embrace e-signatures in many Asian jurisdictions?

The manner of execution of the document needs to satisfy the law of the place in which it is signed or the governing law.

The best thing to do is select your governing law so it is one that it is easy to satisfy. In Australia, with deeds executed by individuals (including as attorneys) there are significant differences between states. In Asia we understand a difficulty with electronic execution is that there are a number of relevant exceptions to the relevant legislation that allow people to sign electronically.

Are there problems under privacy legislation if documents are stored in digital signing platforms?

Yes. With cloud-based signing platforms, there can be privacy law issues because it is necessary to give the platform the names and email addresses of signatories, so the platform can send emails to them. It is advisable to have a relevant privacy consent built into the procedure, be it on a website or in relevant emails that get sent as part of the process.

Want to know more?

Watch the webinar on what to do when signatories are isolated or scattered

Covered in this webinar, are: legal requirements; part-electronic mechanisms; electronic mechanisms; practical tips; and law reform

More questions on this topic?

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