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A notary public or notary or public notary in the common law world is a public officer constituted by law to serve the public in non-contentious matters usually concerned with estates, deeds, powers-of-attorney, and foreign and international business. A notary's main functions are to administer oaths and affirmations, take affidavits and statutory declarations, witness and authenticate the execution of certain classes of documents, take acknowledgments of deeds and other conveyances, protest notes and bills of exchange, provide notice of foreign drafts, prepare marine or ship's protests in cases of damage, provide exemplifications and notarize copies, and perform certain other official acts depending on the jurisdiction. Any such act is known as a notarization. The term notary public only refers to common-law notaries and should not be confused with civil-law notaries.
With the exceptions of Louisiana, Puerto Rico, Quebec, whose private law is based on civil law, and British Columbia, whose notaries tradition stems from scrivener notary practice, a notary public in the rest of the United States and most of Canada has powers that are far more limited than those of civil-law or other common-law notaries, both of whom are qualified lawyers admitted to the bar: such notaries may be referred to as notaries-at-law or lawyer notaries. Therefore, at common law, notary’s service is distinct from the practice of law, and giving legal advice and preparing legal instruments is forbidden to lay notaries such as those appointed throughout most of the United States of America.
Notaries are appointed by a government authority, such as a court or lieutenant governor, or by a regulating body often known as a Society or Faculty of Notaries Public. For lawyer notaries, an appointment is usually for life, while lay notaries are usually commissioned for a briefer term, with the possibility of renewal.
In most common law countries, appointments and their number for a given notaries district are highly regulated. However, since the majority of American notaries are lay persons who provide officially required services, commission numbers are not regulated, which is part of the reason why there are far more notaries in the United States than in other countries 4.5 million vs. approx. 740 in England and Wales and Approx. 1,250 in Australia and New Zealand. Furthermore, all U.S. and some Canadian notary’s functions are applied to domestic affairs and documents, where fully systematized attestations of signatures and acknowledgment of deeds are a universal requirement for document authentication. By contrast, outside North American common law jurisdictions, notaries practice is restricted to international legal matters or where a foreign jurisdiction is involved, and almost all notaries are also qualified lawyers.
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. To these documents a notary affixes a notaries certificate which attests to the execution of the document, usually by the person who appears before the notary, known as an appearer or constituent U.S.. In places where lawyer notaries are the norm, a notary may also draft legal instruments known as notaries acts or deeds which may have probative value and executory force, as they do in the civil law jurisdictions. Originals or duplicate originals are then filed and stored in the notary's archives, or protocol. Acts of lawyer notaries in general do not have this executory force.
Notaries are generally required to undergo special training in the performance of their duties. Some must also first serve as an apprentice before being commissioned or licensed to practice their profession. In many countries, even licensed lawyers, e.g., barristers or solicitors, must follow a prescribed specialized course of study and be mentored for two years before being allowed to practice as a notary e.g., British Columbia, England. However, notaries public in the U.S., of which the vast majority are lay people, require only a brief training seminar and are expressly forbidden to engage in any activities that could be construed as the practice of law unless they are also qualified attorneys. Yet, despite these apparent differences, notaries practice is universally considered to be distinct and separate from that of attorney solicitor/barrister. In England and Wales, there is a course of study for notaries who are conducted under the auspices of the University of Cambridge and the Society of Notaries of England and Wales. In the State of Victoria, Australia, applicants for appointment must first complete a Graduate Diploma of Notaries Practice which is administered by the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre in Victoria University, Melbourne.
In bi-juridical jurisdictions, such as South Africa or Louisiana, the office of notary public is a legal profession with educational requirements similar to those for attorneys. Many even have institutes of higher learning that offer degrees in notaries law. Therefore, despite their name, "notaries public" in these jurisdictions are in effect civil law notaries.