What is the correct way to sign legal documents?

When you receive your contract and it’s ready to sign, that’s when a lot of questions can start to bubble up. Who actually needs to sign it? Does it need to be signed in front of witnesses? Do I need to sign the same physical copy of the document that the other party needs to sign on? Do we both need to sign the document at the same time?

Here’s a rundown of what needs to happen:

Q: Do I need to sign with a witness?

A: Most contracts just need to be signed by the person who is entering into the agreement and doesn’t need a witness signature too. That said, there are a few different types of contract which do require a witness at signing. These include contracts which are referred to as being executed as a “deed”.

A simple way of know is that if your contract falls under the category of being a “deed”, then it should also have a space for a witness to sign the document too. If it’s doesn’t then you don’t need to add a witness on your own account.

Q: If my contract needs to be countersigned by a witness, who should that witness be? Can the witness be the other party to the contract, or a relative or friend? Is there a minimum age limit?

A: Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is that in theory, anyone can act as a witness, including relatives, friends, and children – but with a very important caveat. The purpose of asking a witness to sign a contract is in case the situation arose where the witness would need to come and testify in court about the validity of the document.

So, while it’s legally permitted to ask a relative or underage minor to sign, their testimony in court could be challenged as being biased. So, if at all possible, it’s much better to not use a relative or related party or a child, as a witness.

Q: Do both parties need to sign on the same physical document?

A: There are many different ways that a document can be signed in a way that’s legally valid. The more ‘traditional’ route is to have all the parties sign the same document, and then to photocopy it, and give each party their own copy.

The parties to the document don’t need to have an original copy, and a photocopy is also perfectly valid, and binding. But, if all the signees want their own original copy (which often happens), then multiple copies of the document will need to be printed off, and all the parties will need to sign all the copies, to ensure each person has their own set of original documents.

However, it is also legally binding if each party just signs their own document and they then swap documents - either in person or electronically.

As you can see, the parties don’t have to be in the same room to sign. They can simply sign at their own location (whether in the UK or anywhere in the world), and fax or scan their signed copy over to the other side. Clearly, in our digital world, this is often a much more convenient way of doing things.

Q: Can I sign a document ‘electronically’? Is it valid? And can a witness also sign a document or deed ‘electronically’?

A: The law has recognized the validity of electronic signatures for many years, now, so there is no problem signing a document using electronic means. There is more discussion around the issue of being able to witness a document using electronic means. Currently, the general opinion is that this is permissible, but the case law isn’t fixed on this point.

So, to be on the safe side, it may be preferable to still have a ‘live’ signature (as opposed to an electronically created one), in the case of a deed which requires a witness, to ensure there aren’t any questions raised over the document’s validity further down the road.