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Can You Sign an Affidavit Over Zoom?

“These technological developments would have seemed far-fetched and science fiction a brief few years ago.” (Extract from judgment below)

It’s an important question – the invalidity of an affidavit could sink even the strongest case, so it’s vital to get this right. Of course, it’s always tempting to cut corners where you can on the commissioning side, and perhaps you urgently need to sign an affidavit but are far from a commissioner of oaths or perhaps for some reason you just can’t visit a commissioner physically.

That of course became a commonplace scenario during the Covid-19 restrictions on personal contact and the pandemic accelerated the need for our laws to evolve in step with all the new “science fiction made real” technologies enabling meetings to be held virtually, documents to be signed electronically, and secure online handling and storage of information generally.

Whilst legislation and our courts have made important strides in this regard, some areas of uncertainty remain. One of them is the question of whether or not affidavits can be commissioned remotely.

The problem – what does “in the presence of” mean?

For an affidavit to be valid, the relevant Regulations require that it be signed “in the presence of” a commissioner of oaths. And as much as we might think that we are for all practical purposes “in the presence of” everyone else in a virtual meeting or family chat session, it’s not clear yet to what extent virtual presence will be considered sufficient compliance with the Regulations.

Let’s look at three recent High Court decisions with differing outcomes –

  1. Case 1: An affidavit validly commissioned by Zoom from Italy: A commissioner of oaths in South Africa commissioned affidavits in a Zoom video call with deponents in Italy. The Court allowed the affidavits to stand, agreeing with previous judicial comments that “…Courts must adapt to the requirements of the modernities within which we operate and upon which we adjudicate…” and concluding that there had been “substantial compliance” with the requirements of the Regulations. However, the Court also cautioned against the idea that courts can “willy nilly accept non-compliance with acts and regulations.”
  2. Case 2: An application for a general declaration refused: A global publishing company asked the High Court for an order declaring that “in the presence of” is to be broadly interpreted to include the administration of an oath or affirmation “by means of live electronic communication, consisting of simultaneous audio and visual components”. The Court dismissed the application, distinguishing this case from the one above and commenting that, although the argument that “the object of the Act and the Regulations can be achieved by virtual means is tempting”, it could not ignore “the clear meaning of the words in the Regulations” and “It is not for a Court to impose its view of what would be sensible or businesslike where the wording of the document is clear”.
  3. Case 3: Courts have a discretion only if normal commissioning is impossible: A bank’s property valuation affidavits had been signed electronically in the absence of the commissioner of oaths. The Court agreed that a court has a discretion to accept such affidavits “if it finds that that there has been substantial compliance with the regulations” – but only where physical commissioning is not possible. Thus, in a previous matter, a court had exercised its discretion to allow an affidavit’s remote commissioning as a result of “the impossibility of the oath being administered normally because of the Covid restrictions against personal contact”. That, said the Court, “does not mean that a party may deliberately set out to achieve substantial compliance with such regulation rather than comply with its requirements.” In other words, you can’t elect to commission remotely just because it suits you. The valuator’s affidavits were rejected.

Err on the side of caution

There are some important grey areas there, and clearly remote commissioning will not be allowed as a matter of course. You’ll have to justify it.

So, regardless of how inconvenient it may be, unless and until new legislation (or perhaps a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court of Appeal) brings the Regulation’s wording up to speed with technology, the only way to be sure that a court will accept your affidavit as valid is to err on the side of caution and visit a commissioner of oaths physically whenever possible.

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