A notary public (also called a public notary or notary) is a public officer, usually a practising lawyer, with powers to witness documents, administer oaths, and perform other administrative functions. A notary public is trusted and empowered to take oaths and sign and witness documents for use in Australia as well as internationally.

Where Did the Practice Originate?

Notary publics originated as members of the Roman Empire. Trusted, impartial officers were appointed to authenticate documents, take oaths and keep official records across the Roman Empire.

As the power of the Roman Empire declined, and the power of the Catholic Church grew, the Catholic Church developed similar functions with the clergy. The Vatican then became responsible for appointing public notaries.

In approximately the 13th Century, England developed the practice of notaries whereby the Pope granted the Archbishop of Canterbury the right to appoint public notaries.

The services of public notaries were increasingly focussed on international trade and commerce. A Court of Faculties was established and given the responsibility for the appointment of notaries and still has this responsibility.

What do Public Notaries Do Now?

Public notaries provide legal acts (a written record of events), which can be used for official purposes, including with local or international government, and in a local or international court. Public notaries can also certify copies of documents for use locally and overseas, and witness signatures and certifications for use locally or overseas.

A public notary can identify you for an overseas purpose. The public notary would need to see 100 points of identification including photo ID. The public notary would create a Notarial Certificate as to Identity. This is a certificate that would set out:

  • The photo identification that the public notary viewed;
  • The purpose that you said you needed the certificate for;
  • The fact that the public notary compared your photo identification, with you in person, and was satisfied that you are the person identified;
  • The fact that the public notary compared the signature in your photo identification, with your signature signed in front of the public notary and was satisfied that the signatures are the same.

The public notary would certify that you are the person you say you are, and would confirm this in a certificate. The public notary would sign and seal the certificate with the official seal. It is then ready for use locally and internationally.


Each State or Territory has public notary registers which include notaries available to witness documents. You can find these details online, or contact your local council for further information.

Ursula Hogben
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