COVID-19 and Signing Contracts

COVID-19 and Signing Contracts

COVID-19 and Signing Contracts

COVID-19 and Signing Contracts

 

Very few documents are legally required to have a ‘wet’ signature. That is a signature applied using pen and ink. 

Most business contracts you enter into don’t require a ‘wet’ signature and may not require a signature at all to be binding. Contracts are not formalised by a signature; a signature simply serves as good evidence that a person agreed to the contents of a contract. Some examples of documents that would normally need a wet signature are: 

  • Wills
  • powers of attorney
  • deeds
  • documents that need to be witnessed, verified or authenticated in some way
  • some court documents
  • some documents for lodgement with land titles offices
  • some governance documents, such as minutes of meetings of directors
  • some regulatory documents, depending on the regulator 

Since the introduction of electronic transactions legislation by the Australian federal government and most Australian state and territory governments around the year 2000, it has been possible to sign a lot of agreements electronically

Rules do apply. 

Broadly speaking, the requirements for using an electronic signature are:

  • you must be able to identify the person signing, either directly or through additional evidence
  • the person signing must agree to be bound by their signature
  • the method for identifying the signatory and his or her intention in the circumstances is reliable
  • all the parties agree to accept e-signatures, which agreement can be inferred by conduct 

Provided that all parties agree, a typewritten name can be used as a signature.  Consider that you may be one of many people in business who have a formal typewritten signature as a standard footer to your emails.

Case study

In Stellard’s case (Stellard Pty Ltd & anor v North Queensland Fuel Pty Ltd [2015] QSC 119) a signature was required because the transaction involved property. There requirement for a signature was in s.59 of the Queensland Property Law Act, which says “No action may be brought upon any contract for the sale… of land… unless the contract… or some memorandum or note of the contract, is in writing, and signed by the party to be charged…”

All exchanges relied upon were either via email, or by conversation. Stellard argued that they were entitled to rely on NQF’s acceptance of their offer to purchase, contained in an email, by virtue of the Queensland electronic transactions legislation. The Court decided that:

 

  • the parties agreed to accept electronic signatures through their conduct, being negotiation via email including stating the offer in the body of the email and receiving the acceptance in the body of an email
  • the identity of the person sending the email acceptance was found through evidence of conversations held earlier than the date of the email, and an admission of the sender that they were the person sending the email

What does that mean for you? 

Be aware of what you are negotiating and agreeing to by email. 

Signing documents during COVID-19 restrictions

After COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and Australian federal and state governments started enacting temporary legislation for greater flexibility, laws were introduced to change the way certain documents, which usually required a wet signature and a witness, could be signed using electronic means.

Changes are not consistent around Australia. Each state or territory has slightly different requirements and not every state or territory enacted relevant laws, so you do need to be conscious of the location of the person signing, and the applicable rules in that place, and when those rules will expire:

 

Legislation

Start Date

Expiry Date

Federal

Corporations (Coronavirus Economic Response) Determination (No. 3) 2020

5 May 2020

22 Mar 2021

ACT

COVID-19 Emergency Response Act 2020

14 May 2020

3 months after COVID emergency ends

NSW

Electronic Transactions Amendment (COVID-19 Witnessing of Documents) Regulation 2020

25 Mar 2020

 

26 Mar 2021

NT

N/A

 

 

QLD

Justice Legislation (COVID-19 Emergency Response—Wills and Enduring Documents) Regulation 2020

15 May 2020

30 Apr 2021

SA

COVID-19 Emergency Response (Section 16) Regulations 2020

20 Apr 2020

6 Feb 2021

Tas

Notice under Section 17 of COVID-19 Disease Emergency (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020

3 Apr 2020

 

Vic

COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) (Electronic Signing and Witnessing) Regulations 2020

25 Apr 2020

26 Apr 2021

WA

COVID-19 Response and Economic Recovery Omnibus Act 2020

12 Sept 2020

31 Dec 2021

*The above table mentions only the first applicable legislation, which is likely to have been amended by further legislation over time, resulting the expiry dates listed. Expiry dates are subject to change.

Signing of corporate documents under australian federal law during covid

Federal law covers signing for and on behalf of companies, as well as the holding of shareholder or member meetings electronically. The legislation was due to expire on 5 November 2020 but was extended.

The Corporations Act is specifically excluded from electronic transactions legislation, so you will normally require a wet signature of directors or secretaries who are signing a document in accordance with s.127 of that Act. The document can still be shared electronically, it just cannot be signed electronically.

Pursuant to s.127 you would usually require two directors, a company secretary and a director or a sole director and secretary to sign on behalf of a company. You usually require both people (if two are signing) to sign the same document on behalf of the company.

The temporary legislation allows for electronic application of signatures when signing for a company, which can occur on separate documents, provided that each document contains the entire contents of the document, and a method was applied to identify each person signing and their intent to be bound, and that method was reliable.

A document signed on behalf of a company another way can still be binding. Section 127 does not limit the ways in which a company can sign a document. 

Permanent changes to the Corporations Act have now been tabled before parliament for consideration in 2021 which would allow for electronic signatures and virtual meetings.

Nothing in the legislation appears to enable the electronic signing of minutes of meetings, whether of a board or shareholders.

Signing documents in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) or New South Wales (NSW) during covid 

Measures were introduced to allow for the witnessing and attestation of documents including affidavits, Wills, powers of attorney and health directives. Witnessing can be done by audio visual link provided that:

  • both video and audio are active
  • the witness watches the signatory sign in real time
  • the witness confirms the signing was witnessed by signing the document or a copy of it
  • the witness is reasonably satisfied that the document signed and the document witnessed are the same
  • the witness includes a statement on the document about how the document was witnessed in accordance with the ACT legislation.

To demonstrate confirmation of witnessing the original signature, that can be done by signing a full copy of the document (counterpart) as soon as possible after witnessing the original or signing a scanned copy of the document signed by the original signatory.

signing documents in the northern territory (NT) during covid

Although the NT does have electronic transactions legislation, no specific amendments have been made to that legislation as a result of COVID. As a result, any documents that needed a wet signature in the NT before COVID restrictions started, still do.

signing documents in queensland (qld) during covid

Queensland appears to have adopted the most complicated provisions. In Queensland, the witnessing a Will, powers of attorney, affidavit or statutory declaration can be completed by audio visual link, provided that:

  • the person witnessing is an Australian legal practitioner, justice of the peace (JP) or commissioner of declarations, notary public or other person mentioned in the regulations
  • the witness completes a certificate that is kept with the document
  • the witness sees the person sign in real time
  • the person signing signs each page of the document
  • the witness is satisfied that the signing person is making the document freely and voluntarily

Confirmation of witnessing, in addition to the required certificate, can be done by signing each page of a counterpart or scanned copy of the document signed by the original signatory, as soon as possible.

There are additional variations for affidavits and statutory declarations.

Documents other than Wills and enduring powers of attorney can also be signed electronically provided the method used to identify the signatory and their intend to be bound is reliable, in the circumstances.

Deeds can be signed electronically without a witness provided that the document is clearly identified as a deed. This applies to both individuals and companies, and for companies, where a second director or secretary is to sign, they can sign a counterpart.

signing documents in South australia (SA) during covid 

While South Australia made amendments to make meetings by electronic means easier, rather than expanding the ability to apply electronic signatures to documents they simply expanded the categories of professional people documents could be sworn or attested in front of.

Witnessing documents by audio visual means is expressly excluded.

Some alterations were made for property related transactions in June 2020.

signing documents in Tasmania (TAS) during COVID

Rather than specifying document, in Tasmania the legislation is focused on actions taken. So where a document requires a physical actions such as the making, taking, receiving, swearing, signing or witnessing of a document, those actions can be completed electronically, or by audio visual link provided that:

  • the witness watches the signatory sign in real time
  • the witness attests to the signing by signing the document or a copy of it
  • the witness includes a statement on the document about how the document was witnessed in accordance with the Tasmanian legislation.

signing documents in Victoria (VIC) during COVID

Victoria expanded the categories of people who could take oaths and affidavits first, before then introducing broader measures for the use of electronic signatures. Timing is very important in Victoria. A witness must apply their signature on the same day as the person signing the document.

Witnessing is permitted by audio visual link provided that:

  • the witness watches the signatory sign in real time
  • the witness confirms the signing was witnessed by signing the document or a copy of it on the same day
  • the witness includes a statement on the document about how the document was witnessed in accordance with the Victorian regulation.

There are specific rules around attachments, counterparts and copies of documents that must be met to comply with Victorian requirements.

Under the Victorian Oaths Act a person can electronically write anything on a document, sign, initial or date it electronically under the COVID rules. There is also provision for Wills to be signed and witnessed by audio visual link, provided that the actions result in one document with all signatures and statements relevant to any signing by electronic means, and that all actions are taken on the same day.

signing documents in Western Australia (WA) during COVID

Witnessing can be done by audio visual link provided that:

  • both video and audio are active
  • the witness watches the signatory sign in real time
  • the witness is satisfied that the document signed and the document witnessed are the same
  • the witness signs the document or a copy of it
  • the witness includes a statement on the document about how the document was witnessed in accordance with s.23 of the WA legislation.

To demonstrate confirmation of witnessing the original signature, that can be done by signing a full copy of the document (counterpart) as soon as possible after witnessing the original or signing a scanned copy of the document signed by the original signatory.

Want more information?

Where documents do need to be signed in a particular way, or witnessed, to be enforceable, then it’s important you understand the requirements that apply in the place of the person signing if you want to be able to rely on those documents in the future. 

If you need help with deeds, agreements, Wills or powers of attorney and worry about what COVID rules apply, contact us.