What is the difference between a lawyer and a notary?

Posted: 12th May 2014

When one thinks of the lawyers practising in England and Wales, Solicitors and Barristers often spring to mind. However, many people are unaware that there is a third branch of the legal profession – Notaries Public, often referred to simply as “notaries”.

Where are notaries found?

Notaries are non-litigious legal professionals. They exist in nearly all jurisdictions throughout the world and have a particularly important role in those jurisdictions where the civil law tradition prevails, principally in Western Europe and Latin America. In these countries the work of the notary is fundamental to the functioning of the domestic legal system. Typically a visit to the notary is necessary whenever buying and selling immovable property or incorporating a company to name just a few examples.

In England and Wales notaries play a more limited role in the domestic legal system and are almost exclusively called upon to prepare and certify legal and commercial documents to be used in another jurisdiction. As a major international trading centre, there is a particularly high demand for notarial services in London. Most typically the work of the notary involves certifying the signature and proper execution of documents such as Powers of Attorney, contracts and Affidavits. A series of rigorous checks have to be made – the identity of the signatory to a document, his or her understanding of the legal consequences of signing, as well as capacity to sign. A London notary public will very often be called upon to “notarise” documents in relation to companies and other legal entities. This entails performing further checks, principally in relation to the existence of the entity in question and the signatory’s representational authority. The information which has been checked is then typically set out in a notarial certificate which bears the notary’s signature and seal and is bound to the document being certified by ribbon.

The London Notary Public

The vast majority of notaries in England and Wales carry out their notarial functions in addition to their main practice as Solicitors. Given the particularly high demand for notarial services in London, this is not always the case in the capital, where many full-time notaries are to be found. Historically a London Notary Public had to have an additional qualification as a “scrivener notary” in order to practise within three miles of the City. This has no longer been a requirement since the coming into force of the Access to Justice Act 1999, although scrivener notaries continue to play a prominent role in the provision of notarial services in London. They are required to pass examinations in civil law and two languages other than English meaning they have skills which are particularly attuned to meeting the notarial requirements of foreign legal systems. Scrivener notaries are also able to issue certified translations of a broad spectrum of legal and commercial documents.

The Regulatory Framework

Historically notaries were appointed and regulated by the Pope. Today this responsibility lies with the Faculty Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, presided over by the Master of Faculties who is an approved regulator for the purposes of the Legal Services Act 2007. As with the regulatory bodies of the other legal professions, the approved regulator is in turn regulated by the Legal Services Board.

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