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COVID-19: HMLR allows electronic deeds but not electronic signatures

04 May 2020

Until further notice, HM Land Registry (HMLR) has indicated that it will allow parties to register electronic deeds. However, the deed must still be signed on paper in ‘wet ink’ with any witness physically present.

In practice, this means that instead of printing a whole deed, signing it and returning it to their solicitor, a signatory can:

  1. print just the signature page of the document;
  2. sign the signature page in the presence of a witness; and
  3. scan the signature page and email it back to their solicitor along with a copy of the deed it is to be attached to.

Their solicitor can then create a pdf of the deed with all of the parties’ pdf signature pages attached and date that pdf on completion. This avoids the need to print out a paper copy of the deed and await the return of the ‘wet ink’ signed document from the signatory.

While this does go some way to introducing digital efficiency into the deed signing process, unlike authorities in other countries and even other areas of English law, HMLR will still not permit deeds to be signed by electronic signature (e.g. signing by Docusign or other applications).

This new process also does not necessarily help with social distancing as English law requires the physical presence of witnesses, though the witness can usually be a family member with whom a signatory is isolating so long as they are not a party to the deed, or the deed can be witnessed through a window.

Therefore, while this is a small step forward for the almost 160-year-old institution, as far as property deeds are concerned, for the time being paper and pens remain as vital as they were in 1066.

Although this concession has been introduced due to the logistical issues surrounding the Coronavirus lockdown, it remains to be seen whether HMLR will maintain it in the long term and whether this cautious dipping of a toe into the world of digital deeds will lead to a Damascene conversion and a fully digital future; HMLR are cautiously trialling their own version of an e-signing system for a limited number of documents so watch this space…

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