Roger writing the LAWmag
May 2013

The Signature: Law's Golden Key

You can attend all the conference on the law, in all its permutations, all in exotic places and many on public money, get a $300,000 law degree to argue otherwise, but the most significant concept of the law is truly a very simple thing: the signature.

With a signature, wars have been started and stopped, wars which have killed millions. With a signature, the order has been given to drop atomic bombs and another signature, to disarm nuclear weapons. Persons are declared legally dead or their death ordered, and even their birth certified - all with a signature. With a signature, judges are appointed and dismissed, houses and companies are bought and sold and even, historically, continents and countries exchange hands.

To those who are good at teaching, a first lecture about contract law, or even a low-grade, generic presentation on the law to any Grade 8 must immediately arrive at the legal significance and power of the signature if they are to understand, quickly, the omnipresence of the law.

A person not yet of the age of majority can so compromise their future that we place severe restrictions on the hold of their signatures, making their contracts reversible in many circumstances.

We do the same with those of unsound mind.

The Internet is threatening the hold of the signature, which may soon join its predecessor, the wax seal in the dustbin of archaic legal tools. Consider, especially if you are under the age of 80, the ubiquity of electronic "signatures", just clicks on a computer screen by persons with password entry onto a form.

More and more contracts and transactions are electronic, nowhere near a pen or paper. Even for lawyers, in modern democracies at least, many can now submit land transfers electronically without the formality of the black ink signature on an official transfer form. There is no momentous moment of leaning over a document and signing one's name to as parchment that sells the beloved family home.

So we pause to recognize that much remains of this once vibrant pillar of the law. Judges still render decisions by signing orders of the court, thus imposing a sliver of law on parties to litigation, sometimes with nation-wide effect. Lawmakers sign-off on proposed laws and often have a final signature mechanism, that of either a governor or a lieutenant governor, depending on which side of the American-Canadian border one happens to live. In the Netherlands, a person can subject himself or herself to active euthanasia, but only with their signature. At this very moment, you, the reader, and this writer, can give away what they wish of their private possessions by the use of our signature on the relevant contract. Even my prized old law book collection - poof! - ownership and collection gone if I sign on the dotted line.

seal of Elizabeth IThe signature, as with almost all things in the world of law, has a storied past. The Roman law sought the mark of a contracting party to a written contract, later the fabled "X" romanticized in countless American movies about the wild west.

British and European Kings weren't one to use an "x" where something more ostentatious would work. Monarchs used a seal, literally a metal wax seal, often on a ring they bore, and they would press the face of their ring onto a drop of hot wax upon a document, to certify their signature.

Forgery of the royal seal brought upon the forgeror the most horrible of deaths which was spoken of in the most literal of legal words: being drawn and quartered.

Some countries, notably England, made a big deal of the Royal seal. They created a prestigious position dedicated to the safekeeping of the Royal seal, the "Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England", who kept with him (there never was a woman appointed Lord Keeper), always, the "Great Seal of the Realm". England, never one to give up a tradition no matter how ancient, still continues the use of an official royal seal, tweaked to suit each successive monarch. There is no copyright on this. Try adding, on your next cheque, below your signature, "the great seal of - your name"

These Royal seals would be placed on death warrants, arrest warrants, seizure of property, the infliction of torture and all sorts of medieval legal transactions.

Later, for political leaders, the seal became the signature but with no less import. Adolf Hitler's signature, his form of an official seal, killed millions of people between 1939 and his suicide in 1945, which thankfully steadied forever that hand. But then Harry Truman, when he signed the order to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and then, three days later, Nagasaki, is the signature of a hero or a war criminal depending on who you ask or, one might suggest, whether the perspective has the advantage of actually having experienced war-time, an experience quickly lost on a society enjoying a long era of peace.

signature of Adolf HitlerEven today, every person is expected to have their own seal which, with time, is simply expressed by a person's signature. We all pride ourselves in our signature, each with distinctive quirks and to some, a vain artistic flair or two.

But open your statute book and find that old corporations law. Corporations, legal persons, can only express themselves by "seal", which is a fancy word for the signature of their duly authorized representative, although many corporation still go through the unnecessary and archaic exercise of ordering a round, unique corporate emblem from a stationery store which they press onto a red adhesive seal to complete their contracts. Or, for the real keeners, the corporate seal is designed to be pressed onto wax, all to make their official signatures look, and this depends on the point of view, "corporate-like". Some might say bizarre with modern corporate law all but eliminating the need for an actual seal as it were.

School-age children eventually see the power of the signature as they observe the ceremony and solemnity of their parent's signatures on cheques or contracts. So they practise, as we all have as teenagers, as a rite of passage, a signature that captures our own distinct name and combination of letters. School notepads or diaries become full of prototype signatures ... whether to set the names out so they are legible or to just dash out something that looks like one of the letters of their first or last names?

This is done with hardly a thought to the future exercise of their hand, as in law this symbol will be asked of them on an almost daily basis to legally bind them to some obligation or to some declaration.

To the unfortunate teenager or adult, the signature can cut deeply such as when it informs the reader of the end of a loving relationship, the departure from their life of a loved one, as in the infamous but signed "Dear John letter" or divorce papers.

Been there. Done that.

The teenager comes, later, to realize that there is even a "Smart Car" of signatures, the initials, a small hand-written version of the signature and as legally binding as the signature.

But the signature is much more than a piece of doodling or unique childhood art. With it, the adult child will walk through life and cross the many Rubicons which each contract is, some small (such as their first student loan), but some for very long commitments (such as the marriage application form or the purchase and mortgage on their home) and lastly, the living will they may have to sign, tears streaming down their cheeks.

So significant is the standing of a signature in law that a court will accept evidence based only on a person's original signature, albeit backed up by bare oath that what is written is truthful in all regards (i.e. an affidavit). In law, to, a signature survives the signatory in their will, determining who gets their things and who manages their affairs.

As it fades out of the legal landscape, so bent, it sometimes seems, to adjust to the Internet, rather than the other way around, I will risk the moniker of Neanderthal in standing up not just to the sheer beauty and sentimentality of the signature in the law, but to the relative certainty of contractual acceptance it affords.

Eventually, our unique signature falls prey to failing hands. But for so long as I have the ability to do so, I want to sign my marriage certificate, my mortgage, my birthday cards to my daughters, my legal documents, my will and my opinions.

Signed in Victoria, BC, this 31st day of May, 2013.anon signature sample

Posted in Commercial Law, Legal History

Attached Images

  • The Signature: Law's Golden Key