Notaries Public (also called "notaries" or "public notaries") hold an office which can trace its origins back to ancient Rome, when they were called "scribae", "tabellius" or "notarius".
They are easily the oldest continuing branch of the legal profession, and exist and are known all over the world.
However, in the U.S. notaries public are not necessarily lawyers, which has led to acts performed by US notaries being regarded with some suspicion in other countries.
The history of Notaries is set out in detail in Chapter 1 of Brooke's Notary (12th edition):
"The office of a public notary is a public office. It has a long and distinguished history. The office has its origin in the civil institutions of ancient Rome. Public officials, called "scribae", that is to say, scribes, rose in rank from being mere copiers and transcribers to a learned profession prominent in private and public affairs. Some were permanent officials attached to the Senate and courts of law whose duties were to record public proceedings, transcribe state papers, supply magistrates with legal forms, and register the decrees and judgments of magistrates. In the last century of the Republic, probably in the time of Cicero, a new form of shorthand was invented and certain arbitrary marks and signs, called "notae", were substituted for words in common use. A writer who adopted the new method was called a "notarius". Originally, a notary was one who took down statements in shorthand and wrote them out in the form of memoranda or minutes. Later, the title "notarius" was applied almost exclusively to registrars attached to high government officials, including provincial governors and secretaries to the Emperor.
Notwithstanding the collapse of the Western Empire in the 5th century AD, the notary remained a figure of some importance in many parts of continental Europe throughout the Dark Ages. When the civil law experienced its renaissance in medieval Italy from the 12th century onwards, the notary was established as a central institution of that law, a position which still obtains in countries whose legal systems are derived from the civil law.
The separate development of the common law in England, free from most of the influences of Roman law, meant that notaries were not introduced into England until later in the 13th and 14th centuries. At first, notaries in England were appointed by the Papal Legate. In 1279 the Archbishop of Canterbury was authorised by the Pope to appoint notaries. Not surprisingly, in those early days, many of the notaries were members of the clergy. In the course of time, members of the clergy ceased to take part in secular business and laymen, especially in towns and trading centres, began to assume the official character and functions of a modern notary.
The Reformation produced no material change in the position and functions of notaries in England. However, in 1533 the enactment of "the Act Concerning Peter's Pence and Dispensations" (The Ecclesiastical Licences Act, 1533) terminated the power of the Pope to appoint notaries and vested that power in the King."
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.
The duties and functions of notaries public are described in Brooke's Notary at p 19 in these terms:
" Generally speaking, a notary public ... may be described as an officer of the law ... whose public office and duty it is to draw, attest or certify under his official seal, for use anywhere in the world, deeds and other documents, including wills or other testamentary documents, conveyances of real and personal property and powers of attorney; to authenticate such documents under his signature and official seal in such a manner as to render them acceptable, as proof of the matters attested by him, to the judicial or other public authorities in the country where they are to be used, whether by means of issuing a notarial certificate as to the due execution of such documents or by drawing them in the form of public instruments; to keep a protocol containing originals of all instruments which he makes in the public form and to issue authentic copies of such instruments; to administer oaths and declarations for use in proceedings ... to note or certify transactions relating to negotiable instruments, and to draw up protests or other formal papers relating to occurrences on the voyages of ships and their navigation as well as the carriage of cargo in ships."
In the United States, generally speaking, a notary public is a public official appointed by a state government to serve the public as an impartial witness. Notaries in the United States are much less closely regulated than notaries in civil law jurisdictions or in most other common law countries. Usually individuals need no special training to obtain a notary public commission; they must only pass a simple test, and have some form of background check or obtain a bond or insurance to ensure their integrity. Most banks have at least one notary present whenever they are open. In the United States, a non-attorney notary may not offer legal advice or prepare documents (with the exception of Louisiana*) and cannot recommend how a person should sign a document or even what type of notarization is necessary.
Each state in the United States has different requirements for becoming a notary public. Some states require that notaries be appointed directly by the state legislature, while in others the individual simply takes an exam and pays a small annual fee. In most states, notaries are administered by the Secretary of State; in Alaska, this function is performed by the office of the Lieutenant Governor.
A Maryland requirement that to obtain a commission, a notary declare his belief in God, as required by the Maryland Constitution, was found by the United States Supreme Court in Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961) to be unconstitutional. Historically, some states required that a notary be a citizen of the United States. However, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Bernal v. Fainter 467 U.S. 216 (1984) (the Fainter case), declared that to be impermissible.
In the U.S., there are reports of notaries (or people claiming to be notaries) who takesen advantage of the differing roles of notaries in common law and civil law jurisdictions to engage in the unauthorized practice of law. The victims of such scams are typically illegal immigrants from civil law countries who need assistance with, for example, their immigration papers and want to avoid hiring an attorney. Confusion often results from the mistaken premise that a notary public in the United States serves the same function as a Notario Público in Spanish-speaking countries (which are civil law countries, see below). Prosecutions in such cases are difficult, as the victims are often deported and thus unavailable to testify.
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