Friday, June 28, 2013

Handwritten Signatures – Now a Punch Line

The June 24, 2013 edition of the Dilbert Comic Strip pokes fun at “original signatures”.


Since the Dilbert comic strip made fun of it this week (click here); I too will jump on the “ridicule bandwagon” regarding handwritten signatures that are often said to be the only allowable authentication/approval method available for court documents.  This is because in the past year I have visited several courts where I observed staff printing documents on paper, hand signing them, and immediately scanning them back into the system.  And their excuse for this practice is that the law requires the handwritten signature.  More on this later:

Let’s first talk about one of the real problems that I believe that courts are trying to answer with via the “unique biometric” that a person’s signature provides.  I think that a valid reason is the belief that a visual verification that the specific “signed” paper copy of a court document is authentic drives this requirement.  The conceit is that the users of the paper or electronic version of the document will recognize the judge’s signature (I have no idea why this applies to a deputy clerk’s signature).  I will just say it… this is false for too many reasons to enumerate here.  But one quick  example; a judge I spoke with in the recent past acknowledged that “the look” of his signature when signing a stack of documents looks almost completely different from the beginning compared to the end.

And have you ever watched one of the television shows when an expert “authenticates” a signature?  They look not only at the signature but the context of the signature such as the type of paper (or baseball for example) that it is written on. I would suggest that the “context” of a court document that is scanned back into the system after being hand signed is the system itself.  We should therefore use the court’s system to authenticate the document in the paper world by providing visual references and tracking identification numbers.

UETA and Court Electronic Signatures

Before we go into the technology solutions, please note that the judge or court staff can legally electronically sign documents thus eliminating the whole print/sign/scan approach. This is because the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) that has been passed (a few states made minor changes) in all 50 states that provides legal approval for electronic signatures.  Two experts in the field, Timothy Reiniger, Esq. and Jacques R. Francoeur note in a paper published by Digital Evidence and Electronic Signature Law Review (yes, I had no idea such a journal existed either):
“Digitally signing court orders with a high assurance digital certificate and time stamp has the effect of establishing each record as a “reference” or “authoritative source record” for relying parties. This ensures the ability to test the authenticity and reliability of the information that was intended to be the equivalent of a paper “original.” 31 Although the federal Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (“E-SIGN”) exempts court orders and filings from its scope, the widely enacted Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (“UETA”) grants broad legal recognition, admissibility, and reciprocity to electronic signatures including court orders and electronic filings in both state and local federal courts. 34 In addition, UETA authorizes courts to specify the form of electronic signatures to be used.  (UETA Section 18)” - Justice and Sheriff: Practical and Authoritative Methods for the Electronic Issuance of Officially Certified Documents in the United States. Pages 44-45
In short, the authors propose that all your court needs to do to make electronic signatures “legal” is to issue a local or state rule.  That’s it.  But if you know of an exception please feel free to share it in our comment section below (just select Anonymous if you don’t want to have to deal with the login)

Signatures, Paper, and “Locked” PDF Copies

Now, I understand the point that the document that is printed/scanned is often mailed/served to the party.  But that approach still relies on the physical presentation and features of the document for verification.  This is not enough in some jurisdictions where paper court documents are easily falsified and real harm results when property is seized or persons are evicted. We need more.  We need to be able to call the document back from the official source, the court, via direct reference number.  And we need to be able to validate the signature as well.

First, every document should have a unique reference number. The case number is not enough although it could be part of the document number.  The public needs to be able to connect and link directly to the document.  I wrote about using meta-data in the document properties before for electronic versions.  But as noted above, this reference needs to be visual as well.  A court file stamp affixed to the document should include the reference number.  In fact, the court stamp could just be the reference number.

The graphic here shows a QR code I generated with the number 1 through 9.  I could have done any combination of letters and numbers. QR codes could be included with the “file stamp” to allow for quick and easy retrieval and possibly verification via a court “app”.

And regarding the signature; it too should have some manner of reference code.  The next graphic shows a picture of signing a PDF document with a certificate.  This can provide a lot of information about who, when, and even why a document was approved. Again, there is the possibility of adding a signature reference number to be used for verification.

There is a massive amount of information available on E-signatures.  Some articles and videos on the subject are linked below.  But I suggest that you do your own research and see what works best for you.  And if you have a solution in place for the issues discussed in this article, please feel free to share them in the comments below.


  1. Very valuable information is shared .Now with digital signatures the time formate is also used so that confirmation about the time of signature will be verified.

    Sign Documents Online

  2. Thank you for broaching this subject. I believe it is more important than is generally believed. Thanks for the work that you do and your willingness to share it.