As advancements in communication technologies are increasingly bringing people on the other side of the world into our living rooms or office spaces, there is new uncertainty about the extent to which the law is adaptable. One example is the witnessing of documents through electronic means such as Skype or FaceTime. Generally, legislation refers to the need for “presence” without necessarily providing whether virtual presence is sufficient for witnessing purposes. While, for all intents and purposes, Skyping or FaceTiming someone signing a document has the same effect as being physically present, the law generally looks upon both situations differently.
The rationale for the witnessing requirements of certain documents is to reduce the risk of people entering into fraudulent agreements without consent. Ensuring that a document is appropriately witnessed is important for both the signor and witness. The signor may end up with an invalid legal agreement and the witness may be subject to a fine if they fail to comply with his or her obligations. For the most part, witnesses need only be over 18, of sound mind, and not subject to a conflict of interest. In some instances, however, the witness will need to be authorised person who is listed under the Statutory Declarations Regulations 2018 (Cth) such as a doctor, pharmacist or bank officer.
In keeping with the rationale of witnessing requirements, the Attorney-General’s Department provides that a document cannot be witnessed via webcam or Skype on the grounds that the person witnessing the signing must be able to “authorise and validate the identity of the declarant”. This may seem out of step with modern technology that would enable a witness to identify the signor as they sign the relevant document. However, the New South Wales Law Reform Commission, when considering the joint signing of wills, stressed that physical presence allows for witnesses to pick up on facts relevant to issues of the testator’s capacity, understanding or freedom from pressure. The only jurisdiction that has shown any movement toward accepting witnessing via electronic means is the United Kingdom where, in the case of Re ML (Use of Skype Technology)  EWHC 2091, the Court allowed the signing of adoption consent forms to be witnessed via Skype. However, it is important to note this ruling was specific to the facts of the case and has not yet been heavily relied on.
Although it may seem that the law is lagging behind the realities and opportunities presented by modern technology, it remains the case that in Australia documents must be witnessed physically rather than virtually for the time being.