Signing and witnessing in the time of Covid-19

27 March 2020

Lockdown and social distancing restrictions in the UK and elsewhere have made it significantly more difficult for businesses to execute legal documentation.

Many documents can be formalised with a single signature. But other documents, most notably deeds, require multiple signatures, often involving a witness who must be physically present and sign the same document. This is impractical or impossible where people are restricted to their homes and need to keep their distance from others.

Here are some things to think about if you need to get a document signed and witnessed in a business context. If you’re signing a will, take a look at our colleagues’ blog.

  • Your witness must be physically present with you. The prevailing view is that it is not possible to witness someone’s signature remotely (say, via video link). So, is there anyone you are permitted to get near to witness you sign? There is no need to get too close– your witness can watch from two metres away, then you can step away to let them sign with a different pen.
  • You may need your family. Normally, you should not ask a member of your family to be your witness. This is to avoid concerns around undue influence, but it is not a rule of law. In these times, you may need to turn to your spouse, civil partner or even children to act as witness. But do not do this unless you have exhausted other methods, and check with your lawyer first, particularly if the witness stands to benefit from the document.
  • Look out the window. You may not be able to go round to your neighbour’s house, but can you see and speak to each other? It may sound odd, but, 18th century cases suggest that, if your neighbour is close enough to see you sign through their window, they can act as a witness. But do think of this as a last resort and speak to your lawyer if you are proposing to do this.
  • Consider electronic signing. None of this avoids the problem that both the signatory and the witness must sign the same piece of paper. Passing physical documents between people will increase the risk of infection with coronavirus. So consider signing deeds electronically. This enables both signatories to sign the same original document without shifting paper (although remember that a witness will still need to be physically present with the signatory).
  • Do you need a witness? Companies normally execute deeds by a single director and a witness, but it is also possible for two directors, or a director and the secretary, to sign, and they do not need to be physically together when they do this. Could this work better? Two directors could easily sign the same original electronic document from their own respective homes.

In more complex scenarios, businesses that have not already done so may consider putting powers of attorney in place to allow specific individuals to sign documents on their behalf. Speak to your lawyer if you are thinking of doing this.

And, above all, stay safe.