Business Technology

Saturday 22 October 2016

Our phobia of e-signatures makes us look foolish

Published 06/09/2015 | 02:30

'We looked on with smug grins as a jam in ‘paperwork’ faxed up a €40m transfer deal between Manchester United and Real Madrid'
'We looked on with smug grins as a jam in ‘paperwork’ faxed up a €40m transfer deal between Manchester United and Real Madrid'

Oh how we laughed at English football clubs last week as they fumbled and bumbled with fax machines on 'deadline day'. We looked on with smug grins as a jam in 'paperwork' faxed up a €40m transfer deal between Manchester United and Real Madrid.

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Stupid old football fogeys with their fax machines, eh?

Yet in Ireland, we are every bit as quaint in our Downton Abbey attitudes when it comes to using technology to complete certain business transactions.

Take e-signatures. Despite being legally enforceable for 15 years, Irish people still appear to have a major psychological hangup in accepting e-signatures as legitimate transaction instruments.

Paper contracts, in particular, have to be couriered or Fed-ex'd, at huge expense, around legal offices to be noted in 'wet ink'. It's a massive waste of time and effort. But it seems that we really do like it this way.

I heard a horror story recently about a tech company signing an office lease. The firm, which employs almost 100 people, was refused completion of the lease because the other parties - and their legal representatives - would not accept e-signatures. So there followed a frantic process where physical documents had to be Fed-exed between London, San Francisco and other places to get all the 'wet ink' signatures in place.

"I just don't get it," said the founder of the company. "Why are people still not using this?"

He has a point. E-signatures have had legal effect in Ireland for a decade and-a-half. But how many people here use them?

Most companies - and probably most people - still regard e-signatures as some sort of mysterious new-fangled thing that, if not part of an email scam, could still boomerang on them "in a court of law".

Ironically, most of us operate in digital contracts every day. Those terms and conditions you accept on your iPhone or on Facebook? They're legally effective, folks. That email you sent to a few friends slagging off a "lazy" or "shoddy" colleague? Try showing that to your company's HR director while enquiring as to any legal implications from it.

So when we step back and look at it, we actually make and accept plenty of electronic statements every day, statements that legally bind us.

That being the case, why do we suddenly baulk at the notion of digital signatures for other kinds of contracts?

"People are reluctant to use electronic signatures in a legal context and isn't really any good reason why," said Dominic Conlon, head of corporate deals at Leman Solicitors.

"There's a lot of inertia and unwillingness to move into the modern world. Property is a particular area of reluctance. Sometimes there are reasons, such as documents being under seal. But new property is registered on the electronic register, so there's no good reason why e-signatures can't be used."

Leman itself uses digital signatures through products such as Nitro, says Conlon. But corporate Ireland moves slowly. And many executives still think in terms of binders and manilla envelopes.

"A lot of them still want hard copies for the board," says Conlon. "That's a mindset I understand. But it's not an efficient use of time and money for the client."

In my own field of media, this sometimes manifests itself from the unlikeliest sources.

When testing a review product, some companies ask for acceptance of a statement of terms and conditions. Incredibly, most require this to be printed out, signed in wet ink and faxed back. (Some will accept a scan of a signed printout.) If companies working in the tech sector, loaning out tech-review products, can't shake their wet-ink neurosis, what hope is there for the rest of us?

"The solution to a lot of this is probably just younger people coming in and throwing their hands in the air and saying that the whole thing is ridiculous," says Conlon.

"More and more supporting case law, together with some good new smart document products on the market, should start to see things move a little."

New EU regulations supporting advanced electronic signatures may also advance e-signature infrastructure in Ireland.

But right now, Ireland remains enthralled to quills and vellum.

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