Most people have a general idea of what a solicitor or a barrister does. By contrast, the notaries at Vanner Perez Notaries and other notarial firms all over England and Wales are often asked what it is exactly that they do for a living. The aim of this post is to give a general overview of what a notary is and explain when and why you may need one.
Notaries are a branch of the legal profession. As a general rule, notarial services are only required for certain dealings abroad, which partly explains why many people are unfamiliar with what a notary does.
An English notary (also called a ‘public notary’ or ‘notary public’) is a lawyer who makes sure documents signed or prepared in England comply with the necessary formalities so they can be used abroad. The notary ‘completes’ the documents with a certification which makes the documents acceptable to foreign authorities. This certification can be the witnessing of a signature, a true copy of an original document, a confirmation of certain facts about an individual or a company, etc.
Many foreign countries use notaries extensively as part of their internal legal system. For instance, in other European countries, if you are buying a property or selling company shares, you need to sign the relevant documents in the presence of a notary, who monitors that the paperwork is executed correctly. In contrast, you do not normally need to visit a notary if you are signing documents in England relating to an English property or company. However, if you are based in England and need to sign documents relating to property located abroad, or in connection to a foreign company, then the authorities of the relevant country will expect the documents to be certified by a notary. That is when an English notary can help you, acting as a bridge between the two legal systems, and making sure that the documents are certified in the way expected by the foreign authorities.
What does the notary certify?
This will always depend on the type of document being certified or ‘notarised’.
If you are signing a private document for use abroad, the notary will normally need to verify your identity (e.g. checking your passport) and issue a confirmation that the document was signed by the appropriate person. There are some other aspects of the transaction that the notary will need to check, such as the capacity of the signatory (e.g. a minor or a mentally ill person may not have the necessary capacity to sign legal documents).
One could also need to provide copies of documents (e.g. academic certificates) to a foreign authority. In that case, the notary will check the authenticity of the original documents with the issuing institution, and produce certified copies on which the foreign authorities can rely on.
In relation to corporate matters, English notaries are often asked to certify that a particular UK company exists, that certain person is a director of the company, that a document has been correctly executed by the company, etc. Many foreign authorities and other foreign institutions, such as banks or professional associations, have no way to ascertain these facts other than by means of a notarial certification issued in England.
English notaries often familiarise themselves with the requirements of different countries so that they can adapt their certification to them where necessary. For instance, a notary may not use the same type of certification for documents being sent to India, Spain or the US.
In fact, many notaries are also able to help customers with related paperwork, such as the translation of documents into foreign languages or the certification of documents by foreign embassies (this step is known as ‘legalisation’).
In England and Wales, notaries are regulated by the Faculty Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury and most notaries are members of the Notaries Society. Both of their websites contain further information about notaries and their role.