What is a notary public?

By Alex Tanglao, Last updated: 2022-07-06 (originally published on 2017-09-10)

If you have ever signed a legal document in a business context, chances are that you would have heard of the term notary public. What exactly is a notary public and when exactly would you need to engage the services of a notary public? What do I need to prepare before meeting a notary public? How do I engage a notary public? What exactly is notarisation?

What is a notary public?

Here, we provide you a quick guide on what services a notary public provides and how you may go about notarising your documents.

What is a notary public?

To understand what the role of a notary public is, it is helpful to think about the historical origins of the role. Dating back to ancient Rome, the office of the notary public was considered a learned profession of prominence. Notaries public had a duty to ensure that transactions were carried out in an honest and truthful manner by witnessing and authenticating documents.

In the modern-day, notaries public typically provide several services, which may include the following:

  • Notarise documents;
  • Attest the signature and execute documents (e.g. deeds, wills, contracts, powers of attorney, incorporation documents);
  • Administer oaths;
  • Certify true copies.

The exact range of services that a notary public is allowed to provide would vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

What exactly is notarisation?

Notarisation refers to the authentication of a document by a notary public. This is typically done by having the notary public put his signature and Official Seal on the document, although the process and requirements of notarisation may vary across jurisdictions.

As a third party witness to the signature on a document, a notary public commonly has the following responsibilities when notarising a document:

  • Confirm the true identity of the signatory appearing in front of the notary public by checking an identity document;
  • Ensure that the signatory fully understands the nature and effects of the contents of a document to be signed and witnessed.

It is not the case that all contracts and legal documents need the notarisation by a notary public in order for the document to be valid and enforceable.

However, there are certain circumstances under which it is necessary to have a notary public notarise your document. One common scenario is when you need to have a document certified for use outside of your home jurisdiction.

Must a notary public be properly qualified?

In most jurisdictions, there are formal requirements that notaries public are subject to before they are properly qualified as notaries public.

In Hong Kong, notaries public must be qualified by the Notaries Public Examination conducted by the Hong Kong Society of Notaries and registered under the Register of Notaries Public managed by the High Court of Hong Kong.

In Singapore, notaries public are subject to the rules in the Notaries Public Act. A notary public must be a qualified lawyer appointed by the Board of Commissioners for Oaths and Notaries Public.

In Australia, a notary public is a public officer appointed for life by the Supreme Court of the relevant state or territory. Notaries public may be “struck off” the Roll of Notaries for proven misconduct.

How do I engage a notary public?

Notarial services are generally accessible and inexpensive. Most countries would have online directories of notaries publics with the contact details of the notaries public listed.

There are fees involved in engaging the services of a notary public. In some jurisdictions, the charges for notarial services are prescribed by law and non-negotiable. Services outside of what are prescribed by law will be charged at the notary public’s rates.

What do I need to prepare before meeting a notary public?

When engaging a notary public, it is important to first check the the requirements of the foreign agency, state, court, company or entity that has requested for the notarisation of the document.

Ensure that you have all the necessary supporting documents with you when you meet a notary public. If you are requesting for the notary public to certify a true copy of a document, it is necessary to have the original document with you as the notary public would need to have sight of the original document before he able to certify true on the copy produced.

If you need a notary public to witness your signature on a form (e.g. bank form), ensure that the form is duly completed but unsigned and bring along original identification documents. The notary public’s job is to witness you signing a completed form. Thus, it would not be the correct practice to sign a blank form in the presence of the notary public, or signing the form before you meet the notary public.
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