Who, what, why: Are machine-written signatures binding?

Gordon Ramsay

TV chef Gordon Ramsay has lost a court case that hinged on the use of a "ghostwriter" device. What does the law have to say about signatures written by machine, asks Justin Parkinson.

Signing a document - what could be easier? It takes a few seconds. But do it several thousand times and the task gets more onerous. The likes of US President Barack Obama and the Queen would spend weeks dealing with documents like Christmas cards and letters, not to mention risking serious repetitive strain injuries.

The answer

  • The constitutionality of US laws signed by ghostwriting machines has been questioned
  • But lawyers in the US and in the UK largely agree it's the intent behind signatures that counts

Many famous people use a device called a ghostwriter, an autopen or a signing machine. It copies the signature from a template and reproduces it many times using a real pen. This is deemed more authentic than simply printing a scanned signature.

But there are questions of legality to consider. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has lost a court case after a judge ruled that a signature from a ghostwriter used by an employee, his father-in-law, to sign a £640,000-a-year lease for a pub was genuine in law.

In the early 19th Century, US President Thomas Jefferson used a polygraph, which allowed him to sign two documents at a time by connecting a movable frame to his pen. Usable prototypes of the current technology go back to at least the 1940s.

The polygraph with two pens attached, on Thomas Jefferson's desk The polygraph with two pens attached, on Thomas Jefferson's desk

More recently, Obama has been criticised for "signing off" laws using a machine while away on holiday, with critics questioning the constitutionality of such actions. Yet lawyers in the US and in the UK tend to agree that it's the intent behind signatures, rather than how they are produced, that counts.

But graphologist Margaret White argues originals are better when offered as evidence in court. "The human hand disturbs the paper differently," she says. "The pressure fluctuates, which can be examined when an original signature is used. A machine doesn't do that. I wouldn't use a machine even to sign off £50."

An automatic signature machine

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