Notaries form the smallest and oldest branch of the legal profession in England and Wales. They are highly-qualified lawyers, authorised to carry out a range of reserved legal activities such as conveyancing and probate, and the only one of all the legal professions to have the right to offer notarial services.
They are public officers, with an over-riding duty to the transaction rather than the client, and recognised throughout the world and relied upon for adding authenticity to legal documents.
The majority of notaries in England and Wales are also qualified solicitors, and many practice as solicitors most of the time, only practising as a notary when carrying out notarial services.
Other notaries practise full-time as notaries, offering a range of non-contentious legal services. Some notaries, including the Scrivener Notaries of central London, only offer notarial services.
The qualification process requires prior legal education which is usually satisfied by being a qualified solicitor or barrister. A two-year part-time diploma course at Cambridge University must be completed, which includes study of Roman Law, Private International Law and Notarial Practice.
Following successful completion of the course, the intending notary must petition the Faculty Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the profession’s regulatory body, for a Faculty to be granted. A practising certificate must also be obtained.
The services of a notary are required when documents are signed in England or Wales for use outside of the jurisdiction. This may relate to buying a property in Spain, opening a bank account in South Africa, adopting a baby in China, or incorporating a company in the Caribbean, for example.
In each case, the notary will be primarily concerned with identifying the person appearing before them, confirming their capacity and authority to sign the document, and verifying that they have the will to be bound by the document. The latter requires both the appearer and the notary to fully understand the contents of the document, and for that reason the document must be in English (but can also be in another language), or in a language in which both the appearer and the notary are fluent.