People often ask me whether they need the original signed version of an agreement that they sign as a party to the agreement.

The usual situation

This is often the situation.  You email a written agreement to someone with whom you have a relationship.  The purpose is to record in writing your mutual understanding of each party’s rights and responsibilities.  The other party receives the agreement, prints it, and signs it with a handwritten signature.  They then do one of the following:

  1. Scan it and email it back to you;
  2. Fax it to you, so you receive it in electronic or paper format;
  3. Photocopy it and give you the copy.

You then sign it and then do one of the three things mentioned above. Or just sign it and keep it.

This raises many legal issues.  I am not going to go into all the issues in detail.  I’m just going to try and give you some practical advice.

Do I need the original?

The original is always best.  In law we have something called the best evidence rule.  Basically, if you are presenting evidence to a court, it must be the best evidence available.  So if a signed agreement is evidence, then the agreement with the original signatures of both parties will be the best evidence.  Anything else is second best.  For example, an agreement with one original signature and a copy of the other signature.  Or a photocopy of an agreement that had both original signatures.  It will always be possible to raise issues about second best evidence.  For example, what is the quality of the copy?  Does the copy have integrity?  Did someone change the copy?  Could someone have changed it?

So, always try to have the original.  If both parties want an original, then you can both sign two copies and then there are two originals.  This can be a logistical nightmare, so read on for another way to sign documents in seconds.

Sign documents in seconds

There is another option that makes a lot of sense.  There is an easy way to get documents signed in seconds and it will be the best evidence.

Counterparts?

In South Africa, the parties to an agreement do not have to sign it at the same time and place.