Forgery has been prominent in the news over recent years, with the Banking Royal Commission revealing a number of instances where customers, bankers and advisors had forged signatures in order to achieve their desired, yet dishonest outcomes.

While it's well known that it's wrong to forge a signature, it pays to understand the law around this practice and the penalties for falsely replicating the signature of another person.

Is forging a signature a criminal offence?

Under the NSW Crimes Act 1900, signature forgery is a fraud offence and the penalties can be severe, including the possibility of a ten year jail sentence. Other laws may also apply if documents that the user knows to be false, either through a forged signature or other methods, are used for financial gain or some other advantage.

Section 253 of the Crimes Act states that a person is guilty of the offence of forgery who creates a false document with the intention of using it, or of another person using it, to induce a person to accept it as genuine and thereby obtain a benefit from it, or influence the exercise of a public duty.

Forged signature can result in multitude of charges in NSW

The maximum penalty for forgery in NSW is ten years' imprisonment. However, being charged for a forged signature may be only the first of many charges that a person can face for trying to use fake documents.

For instance, it's also an offence to forge a document. It's illegal to alter the content of a document and try to pass it off as the original, and it's a crime to induce a person to accept a forged document as genuine.

Harsh penalties for forgery also apply under federal law

Under federal law, there are serious consequences for a person who has been found to forge a signature. Under Section 144.1 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act 1995, there is a maximum penalty of ten years in jail for making a false document.

In addition, under section 145.1, if a person knowingly uses a forged document to induce a public official to accept it as genuine, they can face up to ten years' imprisonment.

The law says that "dishonestly obtaining a gain, dishonestly causing a loss, or dishonestly influencing the exercise of a public duty or function" carries a penalty of up to ten years' jail.

In essence, making a forged document and forging a signature are both crimes, even if you don't benefit financially from committing these offences.

Forgery offences falling under state and federal law

If the forgery or false documentation involves a private individual, business or organisation it will come under state law. However, if the offence involves a Commonwealth entity, it will be dealt with under federal law.

Regardless, the laws in the commonwealth and state jurisdictions are very similar and all have penalties of up to ten years' jail.

Forgery and fraud among Australia's fastest-growing crimes

According to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics, crime has been increasing by more than 20 per cent in recent years. There are more than 50,000 recorded criminal incidents of fraud a year – the largest category of crime in Australia. Most involve credit or bank cards, but identity theft is now five per cent of reported fraud.

If you find yourself involved in a forgery matter – either as the accused or the victim – it's wise to seek experienced legal advice as soon as possible, as the consequences can be dire for both parties.

Michael McHugh

Business disputes and litigation

Stacks Law Firm