New requirements prevent notaries from giving legal advice

Last updated: October 23. 2013 11:44PM - 3076 Views
By - rdupuis@timesleader.com

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They might sound similar, but an American notary public is not the same thing as what many Spanish-speaking countries call a “notario público.”

The American version is a person who attests to the identity of people signing documents. The Latino version is a lawyer who has undergone extensive training and can perform a wider, more complex range of tasks.

In order to protect Latino immigrants from confusion and fraud, a new state law prohibits notaries from engaging in false or deceptive advertising, providing legal advice and purporting to act as a “notario público.”

“Whereas in some Latin American countries, a notario público is a type of lawyer — and in fact a lawyer with specialized certification and training — a notary public in the U.S. is not a lawyer,” said Vanessa Stine, a law student at Villanova University who started the Notario Fraud Project last year to raise awareness of the issue.

“People confuse the two terms when they see a sign in their neighborhood or hear an ad on the radio that says ‘notario público’ and ‘servicios de inmigración,’” Stine added. “They go in and talk to the person — sometimes asking if they are a lawyer, and sometimes not. … People do not always ask to see credentials because they feel rude, or because they trust that a person would not misrepresent their qualifications.”

The legislation, signed by Gov. Tom Corbett on Oct. 9, also enhances many other aspects of the notary system in Pennsylvania, affecting training and testing, commission renewals, tightened ID requirements for people looking to have documents notarized, as well as revising procedures for notarizing electronic records.

Stine sees the change as a step in the right direction, so long as it is effectively enforced.

Notaries and other observers who spoke with The Times Leader felt the overall changes will be good for the profession.

“It has been 10 years since the notary law of 2003. In the ensuing decade, there have been changes to our social environment, such as the growth of an immigrant population in our state, the prevalence of identity theft and the robo-signing scandal which shed light on the deficiencies of the law,” said Marc L. Aronson, president of the Pittsburgh-based Pennsylvania Association of Notaries.

The scandal involved mortgage-servicing companies which were discovered to be automatically signing foreclosure documents without reviewing their contents.

Teri Ooms, executive director of The Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development at Wilkes University, sees the changes as appropriate both in terms of keeping up with best practices and reflecting growing linguistic diversity in the state.

“Many of the laws and regulations lose relevance over time and it is important to revisit and to ensure that consistent guidelines are in place that protect, in this case, the notary and their perspective client. It reduces the margin for error that the language barrier presents and holds the notary to a high moral platform,” Ooms said.

Hazleton notary Patricia Schweitzer, who joined the field a year ago and left her job as a banker to be a full-time mobile notary about six months ago, said “I agree with the mandatory testing for new notaries and renewals.”

“Being a notary is an honor not to be taken lightly,” said Schweitzer, who specializes in mortgage refinances, debt consolidation and real estate purchases.

“I think the changes are very good. Continuing education and diligence in this profession are so important,” Schweitzer said.

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