If you have ever bought or sold property in France (or even considered it), or needed some other form of legal paperwork in France, you are likely to have heard the word ‘notaire’.
The legal role is so specific and particular to France that we do not translate it into an English equivalent. The term ‘notary public’ exists in the UK, for example, but is a small and little-known profession, and not really comparable.
Otherwise, the jobs most often done by a notaire are best compared to - for example - a family solicitor in the UK.
Although notaires are often referred to during property transactions, this is not their only role; they can also help with marriage or Pacs paperwork, wills, inheritance, ID queries, and more.
Some of their work charges fees at rates fixed by the state, while other aspects may have variable costs, especially when it comes to giving general advice rather than performing set tasks such as drawing up property deeds, or a will.
What can I expect from a notaire as a client?
One of the major differences – compared to, for example, a high street solicitor in the UK – is that as well as being professionals with their own practice, they are public officials delegated by the state.
This means that they are subject to several national laws and obligations. However they are personally liable for all their professional activities.
They have a duty of rigour when it comes to legal requirements, especially when it comes to ensuring authenticity and legal accuracy in the content and form of the actes notariés (official deeds) they draw up.
They must also advise their clients ethically and competently on the relevant laws. Clients can expect their notaire to explain the various options available to them, and the consequences and obligations of the deeds they are about to sign.
For example, during a property transaction, the notaire will make sure that the buyer is aware of the implications of the property having a septic tank, asbestos in the roof or a poor DPE energy performance diagnostic.
While they have a duty to their client they must also remain legally neutral and impartial.
They are also bound by professional secrecy. Anything said in confidence to notaires in the course of their duties must not be disclosed by them to a third party under any circumstances.
If they break this rule they can be punished by criminal and disciplinary sanctions, and may also be liable for damages.
How much do notaires charge for a property transaction?
On agreeing a property transaction, notaires add a fee commonly referred to as the frais de notaire to the sale price, which is mandatory and regulated by the state.
The frais de notaire fee, which is state-regulated, comes to around 7-8% of the sale price on older properties and 2-3% on new properties.
Most of it goes in a property sales tax called the taxe de publicité foncière, which is divided between the commune, the department and the state.
To be precise, about 80% of this fee goes to the state in taxes. Another 10% is their actual fee for their work. A further 10% is used by the notaire to pay the various costs incurred in administrative formalities.
The notaire’s own fee for the work is also state-regulated and is set at 0.799% for a sale worth over €60,000.
Once the taxes have been paid, the notaire passes on the remainder of the sale money to the seller, which can take several months.
What responsibilities does a notaire have?
The ethics of the position are fundamental to the practice, and are the basis for the trust placed in the notaire by their clients.
They have both duties and obligations, as defined in the Règlement National du Notariat.
Notaires can be liable in three different ways if they are found lacking.
Any negligence on the part of the notaire in drawing up the deeds or in the checks they must undertake, may result in their liability claim. To cover this, notaires are protected by professional civil liability insurance, and a collective guarantee.
A notaire may be held criminally liable if they have knowingly used inaccurate facts. For example they could be charged with ‘forgery of a public document’.
Unlike criminal proceedings, which relate to a breach of the country’s law, disciplinary proceedings are admissible for breaches of ethical rules within the profession itself.
Disciplinary action is independent of criminal proceedings, and is overseen by the public prosecutor and the president of the regional council or interdepartmental Chambre de Notaires.
What checks are notaires subject to?
Notaires are subject to strict professional inspections that are designed to ensure the rigour of their legal activities and financial accounts.
Each notaire office receives an unannounced visit from an inspector at least once a year.
The inspector will check their legal handling of cases, and the office's accounts. They will then submit a report to the disciplinary board president (président de la chambre de discipline) and the public prosecutor (procureur de la République).
There are two types of inspectors:
- ‘Inspector-notaire’ (notaires-inspecteurs): A notaire who practises outside the department of the office being inspected (to avoid any bias).
- Accountancy inspectors (inspecteurs de comptabilité): Financial investigators, including chartered accountants and statutory auditors. If they find any irregularities, they must immediately notify the profession's disciplinary bodies and the judicial authorities.
These inspectors are also criminally liable for the thoroughness of their inspections, and must ensure transparency and impartiality.
What can I do if I am unhappy with my notaire?
If you have tried to resolve the issue with your notaire, and they either do not reply or do not reply to your satisfaction, you can refer them to:
- The notaire’s ombudsman: This gives you recourse to third party mediation.
A European directive of May 21, 2013 (which became French law on August 20, 2015), gives all consumers “the right to have recourse free of charge to a consumer mediator with a view to the amicable resolution of a dispute between them and a professional”.
- The Président du conseil régional des notaires (Notaires’ regional chamber), or the Chambre interdépartementale des notaires (inter-departmental chamber of notaires): These are professional bodies that oversee the profession. You can send a complaint by post, e-mail, or website form to the president of the organisation within your notaire’s jurisdiction.
You will usually receive acknowledgement of the complaint once it has been received, and, if the president allows, you may be summoned for a meeting to help settle the matter. If this fails you will be offered an appeal, or the case may continue to liability proceedings.