“AND bee it further enacted That all Grants and Assignments of any Trust or Confidence shall likewise be in Writeing signed by the partie granting or assigning the same or by such last Will or Devise or else shall likewise be utterly void and of none effect.” Thus spake the Statute of Frauds, first enacted into English law in 1677 and making legally binding the notion of the handwritten signature.
While autographs had existed for millennia (the earliest recorded signature is carved on the back of a Sumerian stone tablet, and craftspeople across the classical world would leave marks sliced across wet mortar or as brush strokes on china), it was this English statute, its principles copied across the globe, that gave our scrawled marks the legal standing they retain today.
The statute was implemented to deal with the consequences, should things go wrong following an agreement. Until that point the main tool in English court was use of witnesses, whose perceptions were not always guaranteed to be honest. Even though it could be forged, the signature was considered a safer and (indeed simpler) bet.
Despite the best efforts of the technological revolution to make everything data-driven, we could be watching history repeat itself. The digital mechanisms that drove the advent of the ‘paperless office’, itself touted to end the bureaucratic baggage that accompanies many office environments, have created a backdrop of complexity and clutter across our decisions and interactions.
The plethora of electronic channels sometimes adds risk to our engagements, because it is not always obvious what has been agreed where. Email (only recently considered to be legally valid in the US) has its own chequered history around fraud; equally, the low uptake of non-repudiation mechanisms such as digital signing means the source of an email can be difficult to prove. Meanwhile, social tools may on occasion be used to confirm the finer details of an agreement, or acknowledge a review, with little or no audit trail.
Such complexity is easy to exploit, even at the highest levels of business. How often have we all looked for the message that confirmed the brief, or the price of a job — was it on Twitter, or in an email? Was it even with an authorised person, with agreed terms? It is too often after the fact (and potentially during an emerging conflict, or even a legal situation) that we find that such terms were never agreed with any precision.
So, what’s the answer? First we must recognise that technology can never solve all the problems — it is, ultimately, juts a set of tools that collectively help or hinder business decision making and relationship building. Whether you are client or provider in a given transaction, we would propose the following three-point plan:
- Keep communications simple — the first danger sign is the use of multiple channels for a conversation
- It’s never too late — take the time to establish the brief, or the terms, in advance of an agreement
- Acknowledge the ‘moment of agreement’ — look for explicit confirmation, using a mechanism to suit the situation
This final point, the original driver to paper signatures, will likely sustain as long as we require clarity in otherwise complex situations. By marking the moment we force ourselves to stop, think and potentially regain a level of personal control at the same time as reducing business risk. It is not a coincidence that we still feel an emotional attachment to our own autographs, and this need for personal acknowledgement may be the ultimate reason why signatures, whatever form they take, will sustain.