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I need a document notarised…but by whom and what does it mean?

October 29, 2014

“I need a document notarised…” is often the standard opening phrase we receive at our Crawley office.  Often the caller doesn’t really know what a notary is, nor what they need me to do. This is not their fault, but rather the lack of a clear instruction from the lawyer or authority in the country where the document is required. It seems to be a case of the authority in, say, Lithuania, knowing what they need and assuming that their client will be just as knowledgeable as they are. They are unlikely to know unless they have an equally intimate knowledge of Lithuanian law So I need to ask, what is the document and where is it going to? Sometimes the answer is “UK” in which case it does not need a notary. In any case otherwise it is necessary for me to find out more to ensure that I don’t prepare a document or certify a signature only for my client to find out subsequently that something else entirely was required. Broadly, documents fall into two categories – copies of documents e.g. academic or other certificates; or ‘authority documents’, that is, a document which gives somebody else the authority to act on the clients’ behalf in another country; or a document that confirms that this individual has the authority of a company to act on behalf of that company. It’s worth remembering that some copy documents might not need certification at all, or not certification by a notary. This is usually following a request from overseas simply to have it ‘Apostilled’. 

The Apostille is a certificate issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office pursuant to the Hague Convention as to the authenticity of a document or the signature of an individual who has certified it. In the case of official documents, the FCO will usually apply an Apostille to the document without any certificate e.g official copies (not photocopies) of  birth, marriage or death certificates, court documents or documents from government offices. In other cases, they will verify the signature of a solicitor whose signature they have a record of and who has certified the copy as a true copy. However, extreme caution is needed, as things can easily go awry. I had one company client with a time-critical document from HMRC which the FCO should therefore have apostilled as a government document. In fact, it was rejected because the FCO did not recognise the signature of the HMRC official. 

In another case, a client came to me after a solicitor had certified a document and had an Apostille attached, only to find that the country it went to would not accept a solicitor’s signature and required it to be the signature of a notary. In both cases, had a notary certified the authenticity of the documents before the Apostille, there would have been no problem. 

Quite often the emphasis for a foreign authority is on the document being notarised, rather than simply apostilled. In most cases of ‘authority documents’ the process also involves identifying the person who is signing to confirm that it is truly that person purporting to give the necessary authority. So a passport and utility bill or bank statement is usually required as well. 

The destination country will often want confirmation that the signatory has been properly identified. Curiously, I do find that having made that clear, a few enquirers no longer wish to proceed. So, there are several possible pitfalls and that is why when first speaking to an enquirer, I ask a lot of questions. In most cases, the best thing for somebody who needs a document notarised is to ensure that they know precisely what Lithuanian authorities want (I am not picking on Lithuania here – many other countries, especially in southern Europe or the Middle East, have far more stringent requirements). In summary, if you do not really understand what is needed, don’t assume that the notary necessarily will understand without a lot more information.

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