Notaries Public (also called "notaries", "notarial officers", or "public notaries") hold an office which is traceable its origins back to the ancient Roman Republic when they were called scribae ("scribes"), tabellius ("writer"), or notarius ("notary").
They are easily the oldest continuing branch of the legal profession worldwide.
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 recorders of facts and judicial proceedings, 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, and apparently by his adoptive son Marcus Tullius Tiro, after whom they were named 'notae Tironianae', 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 using these notes, 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 maintains in countries whose legal systems are derived from the civil law, including most of Europe and South America. The office of notary reached its apogee in the Italian city of Bologna in the 12th century, its most distinguished scion being Rolandino Passeggeri generally known as Rolandino of Bologna, who died in 1300 AD, and whose masterwork was the Summa Artis Notariae.
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 authorized 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 common law 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 who then transferred it to the Archbishop of Canterbury who assigned it to the Court of Faculties and the Master of the Faculties.
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 in England and other common law countries are described in Brooke's Notary on page 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 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….
A notary, in almost all common law jurisdictions including Australia ,but other than most of North America, is a legal practitioner trained in the drafting and execution of legal documents. Notaries traditionally 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 functions of notaries specifically include the preparation of certain types of documents (including international contracts, deeds, wills, and powers of attorney) and certification of their due execution, administering of oaths, witnessing affidavits and statutory declarations, certification of copy documents, noting and protesting of bills of exchange, and the preparation of ships' protests.
Notaries in Australia were first appointed to office by colonial State Governors and once eastern Australian States began to grow, appointments were made by the Archbishop of Canterbury until the passing of various State Notary Acts regulating appointment by Supreme Courts, excepting Queensland which still clings to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s breast.