The handwritten signature is not dead (yet)

Australians are sticking by an almost archaic tradition of physically signing documents while the rest of the world begins to turn to e-signatures.

According to research conducted by Adobe EchoSign, Australia has only a two per cent adoption rate of e-signatures, which can be anything from a scanned signature written on a piece of paper to your name typed at the end of an email – and even includes some digital encryption software.

This is a low adoption rate compared to the US on 11 per cent, although not far behind the UK on 3.5 per cent.

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The same study found that more than 100 million contracts had been signed electronically using PCs, tablets and phones in the US, and that 70 per cent of business managers in America thought that contracts were more efficient when sent and signed digitally.

But while America might seem progressive, The Wall Street Journal reports that many politicians still rely on a pre World War II machine to reproduce their signatures on thousands of documents each year.

If robot pens are the 20th century equivalent of the iPhone, then Australians may as well be signing with feather-tipped quills. Here’s why.

Aussies are old-fashioned


Is the key mighter than the pen? Photo: Shutterstock

Niranjan Arasatnam, head of Allens’ Lawyers technology sector, says Australians are reticent to do away with the John Hancock on really important documents.

“We are finding, for a really significant sort of document or contract, no one’s really signing by applying a digital signature or an electronic signature,” he says. “Usually, people are still asking for people to sign physically.”

Mr Arasatnam thinks there could be a psychological explanation for this anachronism.

“When you have a signing of a significant transaction you have a kind of signing ceremony,” he says. “You like to get everyone into place. There’s something psychological about it.”

There are practical reasons as well. Wills, affidavits and some commercial contracts need to be witnessed when signed, which is “pretty tough” if not impossible to do for an e-signature, according to Mr Arasatnam.

… but our laws and technology are advanced

Senior Associate at Maddocks Lawyers Andrew Whiteside says there is nothing stopping us from signing electronically if we wanted to.

“All contract formation legally requires is an offer, acceptance and consideration,” Mr Whiteside says.

“Handwritten signatures are merely one way that the parties can indicate their intent to enter into contracts.”

Mr Whiteside can certainly see a future where e-signatures are the norm with less need to enter contracts and arrangements on paper with handwritten signatures.

In fact, Allen’s Mr Arasatnam says Australian law has made great leaps forward in this area in recent years, with e-signatures now “on an equal footing” with old-fashioned handwriting, at least in the eyes of the law.

Mr Arasatnam says the Parliament has “done a good job” of adopting the UN’s Model Law on Electronic Signatures, so we certainly aren’t lagging behind the rest of the world “in terms of the law.”

The courts are keeping up with the times as well. In a NSW court case last year, an email with “Tom” typed at the end was held to be a signature. And an e-signature drawn with a touchpad stylus was upheld by the High Court in 2010.

Are e-signatures a good idea?

newdaily_170414_pen2 Maddocks Lawyers Mr Whiteside says e-signatures save time as documents can be signed and returned faster than traditional methods.

“Flowing from efficiency, any costs borne from having to deliver documents in person or obtaining a signature in person can be saved.”

Are we really that far behind?

Australia Post and many other courier services are ahead of the game in this regard.

“We have had e-signature capability in our Parcel Contractor fleet for at least eight years,” Australia Post spokesperson Michelle Skehan says.

“We use the signatures primarily for proof of delivery.”

Handheld Motorola MC70 scanners have been used for years by delivery people, and recently, rolled out in post offices as well.

“Not only does it remove the manual effort of capturing, storing and retrieving the paper based signatures, it also allows our customer contact centre to provide this information quickly and efficiently for customer enquiries,” Ms Skehan says.

For now, Australia prefers to sign its name with a flourish, not a stylus, but that looks likely to change.

Would you feel comfortable using an e-signature rather than a pen? Tell us in the comments below.

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