History of the Hong Kong Notarial System
The notarial system in Hong Kong largely follows that in England and Wales. A notary public is a public officer constituted by law. In Hong Kong the appointment, registration and regulation of notaries public is governed by the Legal Practitioners Ordinance. Notaries public belong to one of the three branches of legal practitioners in Hong Kong (the other two being solicitors, regulated by the Law Society of Hong Kong, and barristers, regulated by the Hong Kong Bar Association). The Hong Kong Society of Notaries was incorporated in 1977 and has an important role to play in the appointment of notaries public and the development and regulation of the profession. The Society is also involved in the administration of the notaries public examination, professional development programs, the guidance and monitoring of notarial practice, issuing annual practising certificates and investigating complaints and allegations of professional misconduct by notaries public.
The notaries public profession has a long history in Hong Kong. According to traceable records, the first Hong Kong notary public was appointed in 1844 and the practice of registration started in 1871. Prior to reunification on 1 July 1997, all Hong Kong notaries public were appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury from England. It has always been a central and important tenet of the profession in Hong Kong that notaries public should be qualified lawyers.
Before 1993, in order to be a notary public, a candidate had to have at least 10 years of post-admission experience as a Hong Kong solicitor and also get the support of at least 30 persons of good standing, including at least five judicial officers and at least 10 practising notaries public, solicitors or barristers. Once this hurdle was cleared a candidate would apply to the Archbishop of Canterbury in England for appointment and, if successful, would be issued with a notarial faculty by the Archbishop. The examination system commenced in 1993 and required that solicitors with at least seven years post-admission experience as a Hong Kong solicitor could apply to sit the examination. As before, successful examination candidates needed the support of 30 persons of good standing.
Then and now, a person who has been issued with a notarial faculty must also register their names in the Register of Notaries Public of the High Court of Hong Kong before they can practice in Hong Kong as a notary public. A notary public’s specimen signature and seal are kept by the High Court of Hong Kong and can be verified by the Registrar of the High Court.
Before the resumption of sovereignty of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China, the Archbishop of Canterbury was responsible for granting notarial licences in Hong Kong. I became a notary public in Hong Kong in 1990 under the old system. A consequence of this is that I have the most wonderful parchment document issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury from his palace in London. It is written out in hand in the most beautiful writing on vellum which is a form of treated cowhide used for paper in the Middle Ages. It has attached to it the Great Seal of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is a magnificent document and one which I treasure.
Obviously, the system in force before reunification in 1997 could not continue. By section 14 of the Hong Kong Reunification Ordinance, every notary public appointed before 1 July 1997 was recorded on the Register of Notaries Public kept by the Registrar of the High Court. They continued to be a notary public with all the powers which immediately before that date were exercised by a notary public under the laws of Hong Kong. The Legal Practitioners Ordinance continues to regulate the appointment, registration and regulation of notaries public. Notaries public are now appointed by the Chief Judge of the High Court of Hong Kong. The term of office of a notary public in Hong Kong has no expiry date and he or she is not “commissioned” to practice for any particular period of time. However, a notary public is required to renew his or her practising status annually.
In next month’s issue, we will look at the functions of a Hong Kong Notary Public.