Research Handbooks in European Law series
Edited by Andrej Savin and Jan Trzaskowski
Chapter 18: Legal evidence in a digital context: will signatures disappear?
Before the information age, contracts were concluded using handwritten signatures and the physical exchange of documents. If, for instance, Alice and Bob were to conclude a contract, they would each receive an original version of the contract which they would read and sign. Then, Alice would exchange the version signed by herself for the version signed by Bob. In principle, Alice would then sign the version already signed by Bob and vice versa, although this would not be strictly necessary. What is required here for a valid contract is a number of original versions – one for each party – and each party holding a version signed by the other parties, obtained through documentary exchange between the parties after signing. Something similar can be observed in the public sector: paper meeting reports of the local government council, for example, are signed by the mayor and the secretary of the municipality and then transferred to the higher regional government. The signed and transferred meeting reports constitute authentic proof of what has been agreed in the municipality council meeting. This model of signed documentary exchange has been widely accepted and has been applied relatively unchanged for centuries. The arrival of new technologies – such as typewriters and copy machines – has often raised discussion on how to reconcile the existing principles of contract law with such technologies. In most cases, it would be held that the new technology merely provides a new means to do what was already done before.
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