Business efficiency, whether for your local store or for a worldwide law firm, is often at the core of consequential revenue stream, and for things to be efficient, they need to happen fast. Sending a contract in the post is arguably fairly old-school nowadays, and digital transactions, e-Signatures, and paperless agreements are increasingly the future. This week Lawyer monthly hears from Liaquat Khan, Technical Director at SigningHub by Ascertia, who provides an expert outlook on how to adapt and what to look for in this new and exciting digital sphere.
A law firm is brimming with paper. For every case there are countless documents, folders and case files – all vital evidence and all taking up storage space.
Many of these documents require a signature from all parties involved to be considered legally binding. This process is long and arduous. Documents are shared between parties, with no guarantee that they’ll arrive on time or at all.
Once documents have arrived they might sit in a pile of papers and not be signed for days, delaying sign-off. When large contracts are being negotiated or property completion dates have been agreed this delay can lead to additional costs for clients.
Once cases have been settled, all paperwork needs to be filed and archived correctly for future use – another lengthy task and one prone to human error. Files could go missing or be filed in the wrong folder with no way of tracking them.
Digital transformation is happening across all industries, with organisations utilising technologies to improve business processes. Approving documents is a daily, if not hourly, occurrence for multiple departments and a task that can be improved with the help of technology.
Businesses are also seeking more sustainable, environmentally friendly practices and the reduction of paper use could significantly improve a company’s environmental impact. According to a recent survey from AIIM, 46% of respondents cited a demand for paperless communication in their business but 65% were still signing on paper.
The reluctance to move to digital processes is often due to an aversion to change, even if solutions will improve efficiency. Paper and ink signing might be the traditional way but this does not make it the best way to sign.
Adopting electronic signatures has many benefits over traditional paper and ink processes, especially for law firms. Transferring archiving to the cloud frees up office space and makes searching for files faster and easier. This reduces the cost of printing and archiving documents as well as the time involved in filing papers.
There are similar advantages for the approval process. The costs and delays of couriering documents for signatures decreases as many document approval solutions send a secure email notification to alert the next party of their need to sign.
This accelerates the signing process and automates many of the more time consuming aspects of sign-off such as chasing signers and organising document delivery.
One of the main concerns for switching to e-signatures is the security and long-term legality of signatures. With any signature, but especially electronic signatures, there needs to be a means of proving who has signed and that the document has not been changed.
There are many different types of electronic and digital signatures. Businesses, especially law firms, should research which is best for their requirements as many are not suitable for certain processes.
Basic e-signatures, such as tick boxes, scanned images or typed names, are easy to copy and do not provide enough evidence as to who signed the document.
Despite providing more unique information on a user than a basic e-signature, such as the speed and pressure of a signature, biometric e-signatures are also susceptible to forgery.
Witness digital signatures provide a long-term digital signature from the service provider alongside a basic e-signature. A digital signature cryptographically binds the e-signature to the document, protecting it from any changes. Further security can be provided with a trusted timestamp.
The only issue with witness digital signatures is that they can often only be verified through the service provider’s logs. If the service provider goes out of business then this risks the validity of the signed document.
So, what option remains?
Compliance with Regulations
eIDAS, a new EU e-signature regulation was introduced last year to provide a clear set of guidelines and legal acceptance of eIDs and e-signatures. It also includes eSeals, a corporate signature that can be used to automate bulk signing of documents.
The eIDAS standard enables e-signatures to be used securely for business across all EU member states. Two of the types of accepted e-signatures included under the regulation are advanced and qualified e-signatures, both of which are useful to organisations requiring long-term and verified proof of signing.
An Advanced Electronic Signature (AES) is defined by eIDAS as being uniquely linked to the signer, capable of identifying the signer, created using e-signature data under the signer’s sole control and linked to the signed data in a way that would detect any subsequent change.
These specifications can be met using unique signing keys for each person signing, proving their identity and that nobody else could have signed the document.
The most secure form of signature is the Qualified Electronic Signature (QES), providing the highest level of trust, assurance and non-repudiation. QEDs are advanced electronic signatures with the addition of a qualified digital certificate created by a qualified signature creation device.
Both QES and AES provide security and assurance that documents have not been tampered with and that they will remain legal long into the future. These types of electronic signature are beneficial for high-trust industries such as banking, government and legal – especially those working internationally.
When adopting electronic signatures for business-use it is important to consider the long-term. Documents need to remain valid in all future document formats and uniquely linked to a user rather than a service provider.
If documents are being used to provide evidence, such as for mortgages or corporate contracts, signers need to be assured that documents cannot be altered and that they are legally binding.
E-signatures provide many business advantages to organisations, such as efficiency and cost benefits, but when dealing with a client’s financial and legal concerns, the most important thing to consider is security, validity and longevity.