Law Society verifies online legal documents

As businesses continue to expand their processes onto the Web, applications are being developed to ensure safe, reliable online transactions. Juricert, an incorporated company established by the Law Society of British Columbia, recently announced one such application.

Developed to reduce the risks involved in completing professional transactions online, Juricert’s process works by certifying digital signatures that appear on legal documents using Adobe Acrobat 5.0. This system allows lawyers to send legal documents electronically with binding signatures and enables recipients to verify that the person signing the document is a qualified lawyer in good standing.

Toronto-based lawyer Donald Johnston, a partner at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, said he’s not convinced that an application like Juricert’s is currently essential, but sees the potential need for such a system.

“With the number of documents being delivered by e-mail constantly on the increase, the availability of those kinds of opportunities to forge signatures is increasing at the same rate,” Johnston said.

The process works by allowing lawyers, notaries, their staff and clients to register with Juricert on its Web site, which is witnessed by a lawyer or notary. This process confirms the identity of the registrant by linking online information with his or her physical presence. Juricert then begins a process of validation through the Law Society or Notarial Society to confirm the person’s identity and professional standing and credentials. Once this information is validated, recipients can verify the member’s online correspondence – via an Adobe Acrobat PDF.

According to Johnston, the online delivery of legal documents is on the increase, although he noted that as a technology lawyer, his experience might be skewed as most of his clients are in the technology business and are generally early adopters.

“I’m seeing it more and more,” he said. “We closed a multi-billion dollar deal where a lot of what was done was done electronically including the payment of most of the money.”

Ron Usher, CIO of Juricert in Vancouver, said that because the legal validity of online documents is relatively new, the timing of a certification service such as this is appropriate.

“This is in the interest of people who are using the Internet to pass documents back and forth, and we’ve felt a business and a client pressure to ensure that it’s done in a safe way,” he said.

Both Usher – who is also a lawyer – and Johnston agreed that more clients are asking for legal processes to move online.

“Clients don’t want to deal with paper any more. For a long time the rules were that everything had to be done on paper, but it’s finally being accepted that there’s a new way of doing things,” Usher said.

Part of the reason that Juricert approved of Adobe’s PDF offering is that the documents can be “locked” and digitally signed.

“It’s detectable if any of the content has been changed,” Usher said, adding that another benefit to using the Acrobat system is that a password can be added to protect the document from prying eyes.

Mark James, business development manager for Adobe Systems Canada in Toronto, said because the Acrobat reader is installed on most desktops, it was a reasonable choice for Juricert’s initiative.

“With legal documents it is important that they look exactly as intended, and the real advantage of Acrobat is that it is able to deliver documents in their original format with security and stability,” he said.

Johnston sees the Juricert offering as a step in the right direction. With enterprises opting to perform more business tasks online, and consumers a step away from being able to purchase cars and houses on the Web, any extra security feature helps.

“We tend to get excited about the little things, but the great big potential breaches of privacy or data security isn’t a great concern. People are more worried about their purse getting stolen than being swindled out of hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Johnston said.