Notaires in France Date Back to the 3rd Century AD!
Volume XXI, Issue 37
A “notaire” in France is distinctly different from a U.S. Notary Public.
A Notary Public in the U.S. is a person of integrity appointed by the state government, often by the secretary of state, to fulfill a vital role as an impartial witness in carrying out various official actions aimed at deterring fraud in the context of important document signings. These official actions are referred to as notarizations or notarial acts. Notaries hold public commissions as “ministerial” officials, which implies that they are required to adhere to specific written rules and guidelines without exercising substantial personal discretion, as might be the case with a “judicial” official.
Notaries in France are private-law jurists and public officials, appointed by the public authorities, responsible for executing civil legal acts, known as notarial acts, in non-contentious jurisdictions, for which the authentic form is prescribed by law or required by the parties (those appearing).
Numerous equivalents exist throughout the world, and there are international associations of notaries. In 1961, the Hague Convention abolished the requirement for foreign public documents to be legalized. In common law countries (United Kingdom, United States, Commonwealth) and Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland), the function of the notary is to prepare documents that will be used in other countries around the world, but are not enforceable because they are not authentic.
From the third to the twentieth century, the institution of the notarial office has endured and now exists in nearly 91 countries spanning America, Europe, and Asia. Since its inception, the profession has continually evolved.
In the 3rd century AD, during the late Roman Empire, officers with roles akin to modern French notaries were already authenticating contracts on behalf of the State. They established record-keeping systems. The concept was introduced to Gaul, and “Gallo-Romans notaries” began drafting documents, especially land censuses aimed at determining property tax bases.
The profession faded after Rome succumbed to barbarian invasions but resurfaced in the 9th-century thanks to a decree issued by Charlemagne. Despite sharing a name, it bore only minor similarities to the contemporary notary.
In 1270, just before embarking on his last crusade, King Louis IX, known as Saint Louis, and King Philippe le Bel in 1302 played pivotal roles in shaping the French notary’s function. Louis IX appointed 60 notaries with jurisdiction over the Grand Châtelet de Paris, marking the origin of the capital’s notary company. Philippe le Bel extended the role of the French notary to encompass all lands under sovereign rule, integrating regional and even local notaries into a national framework.
The 16th century saw the emergence and modernization of state structures. In 1539, King Francois 1st, through the Villers-Cotterêts ordinance, foreshadowed the organization of civil law notaries: documents were to be written in French instead of regional dialects, archived, and their existence recorded. In 1597, King Henri IV designated French notaries as custodians of the State Seal.
The French Revolution did not challenge but instead affirmed the notarial institution with the 1791 law. Embedded in the public consciousness, the notary was recognized as an integral part of modern France’s social structure. During the Consulate’s final phase, Napoleon Bonaparte, in an Act dated 25 Ventôse year XI* by the revolutionary calendar, conferred a status upon French notaries, the main features of which remain largely unchanged.
* Ventôse was the third month of the winter quarter (mois d’hiver). It started between February 19 and 21. It ended between March 20 and 21.
The Superior Council of the Notariat was established in 1941, and the republican renewal, under the November 2, 1945 ordinance, provided institutional structures for the notariat. The notarial profession experienced substantial growth since that period, driven by the imperative to rebuild France after World War II. Notaries played a pivotal role in legal and tax aspects of this reconstruction.
The post-war era witnessed dramatic expansion in the legal profession as politicians reformed existing institutions and created new ones across diverse fields. Concurrently, town-planning regulations underwent numerous changes, and two new areas of law emerged: consumer rights protection and environmental preservation.
In essence, the legal landscape saw more transformations in the last half-century than in the preceding century and a half. However, the notariat, by investing significant technical and financial resources, adeptly adapted to these changes.
The Macron Law of August 2015 brought profound changes to the profession, particularly in the accession process based on a setup card proposed by the Competition Authority and endorsed by the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Economy. A lottery system was also introduced, and the pricing of notarial acts underwent revision. Overall, this reform led to a substantial increase in the number of notary offices, making the French notarial profession the most densely populated in Europe.
COMMENT: The closing costs on a property in France are not inexpensive—approximately 7% of the price of the property. We refer to these as the notarial taxes and fees. The concept that the notaries benefit from these high fees is a misconception. The fees are highly regulated by the State. See our French Property Insider issue from February 23, 2023 which explains it in great detail.
The Adrian Leeds Group®
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