History of the Notary Public

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A notary public is an officer who can administer oaths and statutory declarations, witness and authenticate documents, and perform certain other acts varying from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Generally speaking, a notary public in the United States has powers that are far more limited than the role of a civil law notary in the rest of the world, with the exception of Louisiana. For the purposes of authentication, most countries require commercial or personal documents which originate from or are signed in another country to be notarized before they can be used or officially recorded or before they can have any legal effect.

History of the Notary Public

Notaries public hold an office which can trace its origins back to ancient Rome. They are the oldest continuing branch of the legal profession and exist throughout the whole of the world.

The history of notaries public has its origins in the civil institutions of ancient Rome and served as a learned profession of prominence in private and public affairs. Notaries employed within the Roman Republic also coined a type of shorthand within the empire which substituted for words of common use in formal and informal transcriptions. Writers who adopted this method were termed notarius and were responsible for the recording of shorthand statements and later transcriptions of such materials into formal memoranda.

The position of notary public remained a figure of importance throughout many parts of continental Europe and was maintained throughout the Dark Ages and Italian Renaissance as a central institution of law. This position remains to date within many countries that derive their legal systems from bodies of civil law.

Notaries were not introduced to the United Kingdom until the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as the legal system within Great Britain was derived from common law. When first introduced, English notaries were appointed by the Papal Legate and were often members of the clergy. In time, clergymen would refrain from participation within secular businesses and the position of notary public was often assumed by laymen. In 1533, the Papal Legate was abolished and the king was given the authority to appoint notary positions.

Traditionally, notaries recorded matters of judicial importance as well as private transactions or events where an officially authenticated record or a document drawn up with professional skill or knowledge was required.

Unlike most countries, the majority of those commissioned as a notary public in the United States are not licensed attorneys-at-law admitted to the bar. Generally speaking, a U.S. notary public is a person appointed by a state government to serve the public as an impartial witness. Since the notary is a state officer, whether the jurisdiction is common law or civil law is determined on a state-by-state basis; Louisiana is the only civil law state within the United States.

In most states, only qualified candidates can apply for such an appointment, termed a commission. Qualifications vary from state to state, though statutes often bar people from being appointed if holding certain types of criminal convictions, or are below a certain age. All applicants must pass some type of examination regarding notary practices and law to be considered as a candidate. Attorneys at law admitted to practice in New York may become notaries simply by filing the application and fee, without further examination.

Upon receiving notice of their passing the examination, new notaries must go in person to their county clerk, take an oath of office, file a signature card, and receive from the clerk their commission and identification card. They are then said to be “qualified” in that county: though a notary may act anywhere within the state, their official records are kept within counties. Though qualified in only one county, and though able to act in any county, notaries may at their option file “certificates of official character” in counties where they regularly do business merely for the convenience of verifying local acts.

County clerks can authenticate the signature of a notary on a document provided to them, and provide a certificate attesting to this. Every county clerk (who may himself witness documents) must have a notary public available in his office for free service to the public at all times.

Notaries in the United States are much less closely regulated than notaries in civil law jurisdictions or in most other common law countries, typically because U.S. notaries have less authority. In the United States, a non-attorney notary may not offer legal advice or prepare documents (with the exception of Louisiana) and cannot recommend what type of notarization may be necessary. In many cases, a notary cannot authenticate a copy of a document. The most common of notarial acts in the United States are the taking of acknowledgements and oaths. All acts of a notary public must include a venue, or official listing of the place where authenticated, usually in the form of the state and county. The National Notary Association estimates the United States has more than 4.5 million notaries public nationwide.


Notary public.” New World Encyclopedia, . 3 Apr 2008, 23:37 UTC. 26 Nov 2017, 19:34