An electronic signature has the same legal status as a hand written one in UK courts, the government announced today, but legal experts dismissed the announcement as a red herring.
Under section seven of the Electronic Communications Act 2000, which comes into force today, electronic signatures, and any certificate that supports them, can now be used as evidence in court in much the same way as a hand written signature.
The Act means that contracts signed over the internet can be enforced in UK courts, and clears the way for subsequent legislation that will update specific areas of the law to include digital as well as hand written signatures.
However, legal experts have said it means little and that the government is in no hurry to introduce changes in areas of the law where it would have a significant impact, such as the making of wills.
Dai Davis, a consultant at IT lawyers Nabarro Nathanson, told vnunet.com: "The law has been introduced to comply with a European directive, and the reason that the government has pushed it through so quickly is that at the moment it has little or no impact in the UK."
"We don't have a general law that says an oral contract is invalid. Where it is, the government has yet to announce details of the secondary legislation needed to actually change the law, and in the area of wills, where it would be a significant measure, has said it has no plans to do so," he added.
In fact, the government's own officials are likely to block any attempts to update legislation relating to the processing of wills as it would require a major overhaul of tax regulations.
A government spokeswoman conceded that the new act changed little in practical terms but said it was an important landmark. "This is significant in terms of creating confidence in digital signatures, in creating confidence in ecommerce. It guarantees 100 per cent that courts will accept digital signatures as evidence," she told vnunet.com.
She added that plans were in the pipeline to update legislation to allow electronic conveyancing authorised by digital signatures, a move that would reduce the time taken to buy a house from months to weeks. Other areas include giving legal status to email between benefit offices and claimants, and to electronic correspondence between officials and businesses on public records, company reports and trade statistics.
The government has been keen to press its ecommerce credentials through the office of its specially appointed e-envoy Alex Allan, but it has been under steady fire from the IT industry all year following a series of unpopular decisions.
It has already altered tax laws so contractors would have to pay significantly more, and will tomorrow, barring a highly unlikely last minute u-turn, vote into law the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. This allows police to read private emails and has been branded as likely to make the UK an ecommerce pariah.
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