Nearly two decades after the technology was approved in legislation, HM Land Registry has revealed plans to accept digital signatures to execute deeds. Under draft guidance released for feedback this week, parties represented by conveyancers will be able to execute five categories of documents electronically, including deeds, discharges and power of attorney. 

Land Registry's general counsel, Mike Harlow, also revealed ambitions to phase out the emergency temporary process for capturing wet signatures electronically - the so-called Mercury signing approach - in favour of fully digital signatures which will not require witnessing. 

Although digital signatures in land transactions have been enabled since the Land Registration Act 2002 and were endorsed by the Law Commission last year, Land Registry has held back from accepting the technology.

The draft guidance states that up until now, Land Registry has not accepted for registration a transfer deed or other form of dispositionary deed that has been electronically signed. 'However, we are now satisfied that we can properly do so,' it states.

In his latest blog, Harlow noted that 'it is obvious that the more digitally advanced sectors are those that have thrived in the last few months'. Conveyancing was not one of these.

Current hybrid procedures were unsatisfactory, he said. 'At a time when most of us are working from home, printing, posting and scanning can be a pain.' 

After conducting extensive research, Harlow said Land Registry believes, with some safeguards, it can accept both witnessed electronic signatures and qualified electronic signatures. Qualified electronic signatures are operated by trust service providers approved by the Information Commissioner's Office. As qualified electronic signatures require secure identity verification, they will not need to be witnessed.

Qualified electronic signatures were once ‘a bit clunky’ and not practical for one-off use such as home-buying, Harlow said. But advances in technology meant the ‘user journey’ was now different.

Harlow said: ‘Our hope is that in the near future qualified electronic signatures become more commonplace and the service providers tailor their use to conveyancing. If they do develop to be a successful option for completing property transactions, we will review the use of electronic signatures and may withdraw their acceptance, which would leave only the more secure qualified electronic signatures in use.’

Conveyancers have until 18 July to submit views on the guidance regarding deeds signed electronically. A practice note on how qualified electronic signatures may be used will be published in the next few weeks.