The first ever conveyancing transaction and registration of title using an electronic signature, with no witness required, has been completed.
Last year, HMLR began a pilot programme using qualified electronic signature (QES) with a number of law firms participating. In this landmark transaction, tech firm DocuSign partnered with HMLR and Hugh James to achieve the transfer of title and registration at HM Land Registry in just 24 hours - the first to be completed using the new QES process.
QES is different to the usual electronic signature because, crucially, no witness is required. Instead, an independent face-to-face electronic identity check is carried out. A digital certificate is then created with an electronic signature device. It is convenient (the parties signing can be in different locations) and it is completely confidential.
DocuSign says QES offers the highest level of trust of all electronic signatures. Crucially for conveyancers, it’s guaranteed that HMLR will accept signatures using QES - thus avoiding HMLR requisitions where there are errors involving wet signatures and addresses.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of this development. Usually, conveyancing transactions can take weeks to complete – even if no major issues crop up along the way. The conveyancing rush in the run up to the end of the stamp duty holiday in June 2021 exposed many of the inherent problems in the paper-based conveyancing process in England and Wales. No one can deny that change is long overdue. HMLR has itself recognised that during the covid-19 pandemic, the convenience of signing a deed without needing to handle paper or visit an office in person was clear.
Fraud in the conveyancing sector continues to be rife. But digital identification and QES will create stronger, more fraud-resilient conveyancers and estate agents - at least, that’s the view of Beth Rudolf, director of delivery at The Conveyancing Association. But with all major new tech solutions, there will be those who are sceptical. One commentator said: “I shall be telling Mrs Muggins (aged 91) that she can sign away the title to her house to that very nice man who called on her to check her guttering last week - all in the space of 24 hours...!”
However, Hugh James is positive about the QES process and says it will continue to use it. Nicola Evered, specialist digital transformation manager at the firm, described QES as “an unqualified success”. In an online article, she said she hopes it will be adopted for all conveyancing transactions and for charges and digital mortgages.
The appetite to adopt electronic signatures in conveyancing is growing, says Michael Abraham from HMLR. In recognition of this, a new practice guide, Electronic signatures accepted by HM Land Registry (PG82), was published in March. This adopts a new term for the signing process – ‘Conveyancer-Certified Electronic Signatures’.
The guide consolidates existing material on electronic signatures and explains how the QES process works. While for now, the process can only be tested in firms taking part in the residential pilot – it would be prudent for all property lawyers to understand the process and the potential benefits for their own practices.