This article is more than 24 months old and is now archived. This article has not been updated to reflect any changes to the law.

clearlaw

Why you should think twice before signing up for electronic signatures

While executing legal documentation by means of an electronic signature is convenient and becoming more common, this needs to be weighed against issues of security and enforceability. Recently, the Supreme Court of New South Wales held that a company director was not bound by a personal guarantee that was signed by applying his electronic signature.

Kate Latta, Maddocks Lawyers

Key questions

Underlying the case of Williams Group Australia Pty Ltd v Crocker [1] is an acceptance that an individual can sign an important document, such as a personal guarantee, by applying their electronic signature. The case highlights, however, the risk which must be considered by examining the following questions:

What are the circumstances in which an electronic signature may be applied?

Will the relevant document be binding?

Personally by the signatory:

Yes.

By a person other than the signatory where authority was expressly granted to that person:

Yes, if it is clear that the signatory:

  • had knowledge of the material circumstances to the transaction; and
  • expressly provided their consent for a specific document to be signed by that person applying their electronic signature.

By a person other than the signatory where authority was expressly granted to that person:

Yes, if it is clear that the signatory:

  • had knowledge of the material circumstances the transaction; and
  • subsequently, expressly ratified the application of their electronic signature to the specific document by the other person.

Facts

Williams Group Australia Pty Ltd (JH Williams) sold building materials to IDH Modular Pty Ltd (Company) under a credit agreement that included a personal guarantee and indemnity by each of the directors. One of the directors, Mr Crocker, (Director) executed the credit agreement (including the personal guarantee) by applying his electronic signature to the relevant documents.

The Company used an electronic signature system known as 'HelloFax'. HelloFax allows users to upload an electronic signature which can then be applied to documents electronically. Hellofax assigned to the Director's account a user name and password at the time that the HelloFax account was established and, when the credit agreement was executed, had never changed his password.

JH Williams sought to enforce the personal guarantee of $889,534.35 against the Director. The Director claimed, and JH Williams ultimately accepted, that he had not executed the relevant documents himself but that another person had used his HelloFax account to upload and apply a signature to the credit agreement on his behalf.

The Court held that the personal guarantee was not enforceable against the Director after finding that:

  • mere failure by the Director to change his password to his HelloFax account did not demonstrate any intention by the Director to authorise another person to apply his signature to a document (particularly a document which resulted in him incurring a considerable personal liability);
  • there was no evidence to suggest that the Director had held out, or represented, to JH Williams that any other person was authorised to place his signature on the documents; and
  • as the Director did not have proper knowledge of the material circumstances of the transaction, nor could it be established by the evidence presented to the court that he was properly aware of the particulars of the personal guarantee, the Director could not be taken to have ratified the execution of the personal guarantee by another person.

Key things to consider regarding electronic signatures

First, there are certain documents which can't be signed electronically, such as wills, statutory declarations, and powers of attorney in certain jurisdictions. Also, the Electronic Transactions Act 1999 (Cth) does not apply in relation to the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth).[2]

A party to a contract cannot rely on a person's electronic signature applied by another person that is not the owner of that signature as valid execution of the contract unless there is clear evidence:

  • of the owner's intent to authorise execution of the relevant document by another person by applying the owner's signature; and
  • that the owner properly understood the transaction and the documents to be electronically signed.

Where a party proposes to execute a document electronically, both parties should be mindful of the relevant risks. These include issues with accurately identifying who applied the electronic signature, when the electronic signature was applied and that all relevant informed consents were obtained before applying such electronic signature.

Parties (whether executing by electronic signature or relying on execution by electronic signature) should ensure that proper records are taken and retained at the time of execution of an agreement. This ensures that, should any issues of enforceability arise, it can be clearly demonstrated that execution properly occurred and that the relevant person understood their obligations under the document to which their electronic signature was being applied.

A good example of when that evidence will be useful is when third parties later make inquiries about whether a document was properly executed, including banks who review constituent documents when lending to trusts, companies and SMSFs.

Questions not addressed by this case

The case does not consider whether a person signing a document in their capacity as trustee of a trust or as a director of a company must apply their electronic signature personally or if they too can direct another person to apply their electronic signature, or ratify the application of their electronic signature by another, in the same manner as an individual, acting in their own capacity, may do so.

More information from Maddocks

For more information:

More Cleardocs information on related topics

You can read earlier ClearLaw articles on a range of topics.

Order Cleardocs document packages



[1] [2015] NSWSC 1907.

[2] Electronic Transactions Regulations 2000 (Cth) Schedule 1, item 30.

 

Lawyer in Profile

Jack Coventry
Jack Coventry
Senior Associate
+61 3 9258 3819
jack.coventry@maddocks.com.au

Qualifications: BA (Philosophy), Monash University, JD (Juris Doctor), University of Melbourne

Jack is a member of Maddocks Commercial team. He advises a range of corporate and private clients on:

  • M&A transactions,
  • corporate reorganisations, and
  • legal and tax structuring.

Jack acts for clients on both buy-side and sell-side and specialises in founder-owned businesses and Australian subsidiaries of multi-national companies. He works across a number of sectors including information technology, professional services, and property development and management including land lease.

Jack’s structuring work includes assisting multinationals to structure Australian operations, listed companies to achieve regulatory compliance / optimisation and providing general tax structuring. He has also represented clients in tax controversies including before the General Anti-Avoidance Review Panel (GAAR Panel) and the Federal Court of Australia.

Read Our Latest Articles

Company Registration
The clock is ticking: Apply now for your Director ID!
October, 2022
Company Registration
New phoenixing laws put to the test
June, 2022