The UK Jurisdiction Taskforce (UKJT), one of the six taskforces of the LawTech Delivery Panel, published its findings on 18 November 2019 on the issues of legal uncertainty regarding the status of cryptoassests and smart contracts under English law in a document entitled “Legal Statement on Cryptoassets and Smart Contracts”.
On the status of cryptoassets, the UKJT concluded that such assets, as a matter of English legal principle, to be treated as a “property”. In reaching this conclusion, the UKJT stressed that crypto assets meet the following characteristics of “property”:
- They are definable and certain;
- They are exclusive and capable of being controlled;
- They are capable of being owned and transferred (through the use of the private key);
- They have some degree of permanence and stability.
Considering the current legal rules and principles and scope of various statutes, the UKJT expressed the following views on cryptoassets:
i) They are not documents of title (so that they do not enable the person holding them to deal with the property described as if they were the owner);
ii) They are not negotiable (so a good faith purchaser cannot acquire good title);
iii) They are limited in terms of what security can be granted over them (as such they cannot be the object of “pledge” or “lien”);
iv) They are not “goods” for the purposes of the Sale of Goods Act 1979; and
v) However, they are “property” for the purposes of the Insolvency Act 1986.
The UKJT indicated that the intervention from legislators would be necessary to solve two aspects of cryptoassets. It has been stressed that problems are likely to arise if no governing law has been chosen. In that scenario, new law, ideally at international level, is required to answer this question. It is also clear that without new law, a distributed ledger cannot be an official register of title like the Land Register.
On the legal position of smart contracts, the findings of the UKJT are more straightforward. Accordingly, smart contracts are capable of satisfying the English law requirements on contract formation. A court would interpret a smart contract in the same way as any other contract. On the issue of whether one can have a contract with anonymous or pseudonymous parties (given that users within a smart contract chain tend to transact in relative anonymity), it has been stressed that there is no requirement to know a party’s true identity. Also, it is the view of the UKTJ that a statutory signature requirement is highly likely capable of being met by means of a private key. Lastly, it has been stressed that statutory “in writing” requirement is likely to be met in the case of source code and, to the extent it is in readable format, object code.
The legal position of crypto assets has already been judicially aired in a number of cases (Liam David Robertson v. Persons Unknown  not yet reported and B2C2 v. Quoine Pty (2019) SGHC(I)03 (Singapore International Court)). There are also reports that over $1.5 billion worth of cryptocurrency was stolen last year by hackers. It is obvious that courts in near future will be occupied dealing with matters concerning cryptoassets. Although it is not binding authority, there is no doubt that the Legal Statement will very useful when such issues are brought before the English/Welsh courts. The author believes that common law’s ability to adapt to different situations will be a key asset in resolving most of the legal issues emerging. However, it is also clear from the Legal Statement that there is an urgent need to consider developing appropriate legislation and regulation to deal with some of the issues that will emerge in particular: choice of law issues and the legal status of a distributed ledger. So, the ball is now in court of the Law Commission!
The potential for smart contracts in global financial markets is huge. Once they take off, one can see an increased use of them in shipping, aviation and energy sectors as they have the capability to provide immutable data! This can, of course, enhance certainty by reducing the scope of potential disputes between various parties to such contracts.
In summary, the way we do business is changing as a result of technology and this will undoubtedly test the ability of English common law to deliver against the expectations of global businessmen. There is an urgent need to engage in a serious debate to determine how we can address the complex range of legal issues thrown up by the massive accumulation of big data, on-chain smart contracts and other aspects of artificial intelligence.