COVID-era emergency legislation supporting e-signatures could become permanent as the Morrison Government progresses plans to provide the first nationally consistent way of digitally signing legally binding documents.

States and the federal government have historically maintained different standards for the execution of official documents like statutory declarations and deeds, which were typically required to be written on paper and signed with ‘wet ink’.

These requirements were dropped in the pandemic’s early days, when new emergency policies allowed remote signing of documents electronically and let individuals ‘witness’ document signing via videoconference.

Those declarations were this year renewed until 31 March 2022, and in June the Council on Federal Financial Relations agreed to work with states and territories to overhaul the standards required for document signature and execution.

Modernising document execution “provides us an opportunity to go back to first principles,” Attorney-General Michaela Cash said in joining Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ben Morton to launch a consultation paper whose goal is “to future-proof legislation and, for the first time in the history of federation, provide a common approach to document execution.”

Supported by enthusiastic business and legal industry feedback, the Morrison government has positioned electronic document signing as a key part of its Deregulation Agenda, releasing the new issues paper to drive a consensus about how e-signatures can best be harnessed in the future.

Eliminating paper could save over $400 million in direct costs and over six million hours wasted annually, she said, citing recent Accenture research that noted Australian small businesses and consumers complete over 4.5 million deeds and 3.8 million statutory declarations every year.

“The disruptions from COVID-19 showed that we can use technologies to create secure, accessible and consistent pathways for executing these important documents, while maintaining the paper-based option,” the paper says, noting that reform “aims to support businesses to harness the best available technologies and direct more of their valuable time and resources towards productive activities.”

A range of options

Stopgap e-signature techniques adopted during the pandemic include practices such as stamping digital facsimiles of signatures into PDF files, drawing signatures directly into boxes on digital documents, and simple attestations executed by ticking boxes to demonstrate the authority to sign.

Some believe electronic signature pads add further security by integrating fingerprint scanners or pressure-sensitive styluses that track the unique pressure changes each person makes while signing.

The move to paperless processes has driven strong growth in e-signature tools during the lifespan of the pandemic, with analysts pegging the market at $1.6 billion ($US1.2b) last year amidst predictions this will grow by 26.6 per cent annually through 2030.

Pandemic-era changes validated DocuSign’s 2018 decision to open two new Australian data centres to support increasingly digital business and government transactions, while Dropbox last year brought its HelloSign e-signature service to Australian users – allowing multiple parties to digitally sign documents in a Dropbox folder.

“Business models will change to prepare for a future crisis,” said Entrust vice president of strategy and business development Chris Bailey, who believes many non-European countries will embrace the approach taken by the European Union’s eIDAS (electronic Identification, Authentication, and trust Services) initiative – which provides a single digital signing standard across EU member countries.

“As a result,” Bailey said, “the usage of solid and user-friendly identity proofing and remote digital signatures will see significant uptake.”

Submissions on the new issues paper will close on 8 October.