Unlocking the confusion: Understanding the differences between a solicitor and a notary public

To the casual observer, it can be difficult to tell the two apart. But what are the differences? And which one do you need?

Not many people of heard of a notary public in the UK until they are told that they need to go and see one. This is not so overseas, and some jurisdictions use notaries far more often than we do and often for matters within their own country. Even during client meetings, I am often asked what it is that I do or how I have qualified. This is not surprising as there are only approximately 743 notaries (Faculty Office Annual Report 2020) compared to the 149,891 solicitors (Law Society Annual Statistics 2020), which, to be honest, is very representative of the level of need.

What is a notary?

I usually describe myself as a person who authenticates documents for use overseas. This can be the identity of a person or company, witnessing signatures on affidavits, oaths, declarations or deeds and travel consents amongst many other things.

Sometimes when people are asked to obtain such a document the terms notary and solicitor can be used interchangeably. This is incorrect, while most of the notaries in England and Wales are dual-qualified as both, there is a number, like me who only act as notaries. This can be because they no longer practice as a solicitor, usually due to retirement or because they want to focus on notarial work only. It is important that the person with the right qualification signs the document, as it may not be accepted if it hasn’t been completed correctly. Further considerations need to be made if the document also needs to be legalised. There is more on this subject in the knowledgebase.

Perhaps the best way to distinguish between a notary and a solicitor is to see what they do and then in turn to see how these are different from the third arm of the legal profession, barristers. There have been recent changes in how each profession can qualify but traditionally each sector would need a law degree, then a specific qualifying course for their specialism. In the case of notaries, it is the Notarial Practice Course.

Notaries are the oldest branch of the profession here in the UK. English and Welsh notaries are appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and we are regulated by the Master of the Faculties. The rules we adhere to are quite similar to the rules that govern Solicitors. We are appointed as notaries for life, but in order to practice, we must maintain our practicing certificate, be insured and undertake Continuing Professional Development training in order to do so. As mentioned above, we mostly provide assistance to those with dealings overseas. Some are qualified to act for clients in conveyancing matters or probate practice, but this is few and far between, as most that operate in these areas of law, do so as a solicitor.

What is a solicitor?

A solicitor will provide specialist legal advice on different areas of UK law. This could be to buy or sell your home, deal with probate or family matter as well criminal matters. This can be on a personal level or for a corporate body. Solicitors will often specialise in one area of law.

What is a Barrister?

Barristers are different again and they provide specialised court advocacy and legal advice to their clients. They are usually engaged by solicitors when a court appearance is required and will plead their case for them. It is slightly confusing that solicitors can do some of this role if they have been granted ‘rights of audience’, however this is not something that a notary can do.

We can see that each branch or arm of legal professionals has its role within our community, each with a different focus. Ultimately, if you need assistance with an overseas matter see a notary, and for specific UK law a solicitor would be better suited to your needs.