A company founded by the Law Society of British Columbia has ruled in favour of offering digital signatures on PDF documents.

Juricert, based in Vancouver, said it has launched a program that will allow law firms authenticate

online material using Adobe’s Acrobat 5.0 software. Companies will complete a one-time registration process with Juricert — which can include an appearance before a notary, along with completing various forms — after which they will be issued a digital signature that can be attached to PDF files. Anyone who receives a document from a law firm with the signature can then verify the identity of the sender by checking with Juricert’s online registry.

Digital signatures typically fall under the Uniform Electronic Commerce Act, which was adopted by the Uniform Law Conference of Upper Canada in 1999. Many provinces, including B.C., Saskachewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and the Yukon have all passed laws that use the Act as a guideline. Just how much more “”legal”” a document becomes once it’s digitally signed is not always clear.

Ron Usher, a staff lawyer with the Law Society of British Columbia and the vice-president and C.I.O. of Juricert Services Inc., said the signatures would not cover all legal documents. Some statutes require wills and land titles, for examples, to be in writing. Usher said draft documents between lawyers and bills would be the most likely candidates for the Juricert system. The digitally signed documents comply with both the B.C. Electronic Transactions Act and the Law Society’s rules, Usher said.

“”It’s the clients who want this stuff,”” he said. “”A lot of people don’t realize that many Adobe documents, unless you consciously (sign it) can be modified quite easily . . . people want to know that it has integrity.””

There have been problems between lawyers and clients who e-mail each other, Usher said, whose copies don’t match.

Mark James, business development manager at Adobe Canada, said Juricert leveraged the existing public key infrastructure (PKI) that exists in Acrobat and tied it into Adobe’s repository so users can register online and provide a mechanism to sign documents. Usher described it as “”PKI lite.”” Without a central certificate authority, PDF documents can be locked but Juricert will vouch for the senders’ professional standing.

James said the ubiquity of Acrobat readers will make for a fast learning curve in many law firms.

“”The process of training and getting people up to speed has to be transparent. The technology can’t be seen as a hindrance to their process,”” he said. “”Particularly in the legal profession, it’s essential that somebody can vouch that they are in good standing.””

Usher agreed. “”The legal profesion is, of course, a conservative one,”” he said. “”They agonized over what to do with the telegraph and the fax machine.””

Usher said approximately 1,000 firms have registered so far.

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