Jean-François Humbert said notaires have to gear up to provide the service people will expect in 10 years’ time.
He told Connexion: “We need to make progress with integrating technology, IT, artificial intelligence and, especially, video-conferencing so we can mediate and work with people, wherever they are geographically. At the moment, people can use a procuration, which means legally giving someone else the power to sign a document for them, but how much more personal it would be if they could be present via a video-link and sign electronically. When someone buys a house, it’s nice for them to be present.”
Mr Humbert would like to contribute to developing new services and diversifying activities.
He said: “I’d like to see notaires providing more mediation, especially when it comes to inter-national affairs, in Europe and the United States, for example. I’d like French notaires to be able to help clients even when they move to, say Washington, on all subjects, including international taxation. So many people are on the move now.
“Someone who owns a flat in Paris might be working in Rome but want to rent the flat to someone who is currently in Amsterdam. Notaires need to be able to help in these complicated international situations.”
Mr Humbert, 61, president of the Conseil Supérieur du Notariat (CSN), who has had a long career as a notaire in Paris, says he wants to ensure the profession maintains its character across the nation, meaning people get the same service in the countryside as in the city.
A notaire is both a professional and a public servant who represents the state when legal documents are drawn up, often in relation to big steps of life: recording a will, sorting out inheritance, formal gifts, creating a mortgage, buying and selling property, drawing up marriage contracts, and assigning power of attorney.
Contracts drawn up by a notaire cannot be legally challenged, says Mr Humbert. “This means, for example, that if a tenancy agreement is drawn up privately and the tenant then falls behind with the rent, the owner would have to seek redress through the courts. But if that tenancy agreement was drawn up by a notaire, the owner could go straight to the bailiffs as the order to pay has already been made.”
Part of the job is finding agreement between parties signing a contract, he says. “Humans actually prefer to find agreement than get into disputes and that’s what attracted me to the profession: finding agreement between people.”
The only downside about the job is that sometimes the law can be too rigid, he says. “But we have to apply the law. That’s our job.”
The 2015 ‘Loi Macron’ made it easier for notaires to set up new offices, which he says was a change that surprised some in the profession, though people have now got used to it. Prior to this, notaires had to buy an existing practice at a high cost, or enter a competitive exam to obtain one of a few rare vacant or new places (60 were created from 2005 to 2013). The law aimed to allow qualified people to apply to open one of around 1,000 new offices across France, with a certain number on offer in each of 247 “free set-up zones”. [On going to press the Conseil supérieur du notariat (CSN) issued a statement ‘deploring’ a ‘second wave’ creating 479 extra offices on top of 1,600 which it said had set up since summer 2017. It said it was too soon and more time was needed for the existing new notaires to settle into their jobs. It was considering legal action in opposition to this].
Mr Humbert notes that because notaires represent the state, the state has a larger role in the French legal system than in the UK and the US – countries which consider that democracy is served by making the legal system independent.
“In the US, the legal system was set up by people fleeing state authority, so of course they made an independent legal system. In France, our history is different,” he says.
All notaires belong to the CSN, which exists to represent them in dealings with the state, and to regulate the profession: how they become qualified, are co-ordinated and are disciplined.
Many people’s first dealings with a notaire are when they buy a property. “It’s one of the most important things people do in their lives, and usually the most valuable purchase they make.
“The money paid to the notaire is made up of taxes which go straight to the state, expenses, and of course his or her fees. They are around 8% of the value of the property [and around 13% of that fee goes to the notaire]. A buyer should be informed what the notaire’s fees will be before they buy, to avoid nasty surprises.”
In the past a large majority of notaires used to be male, as in many professions, but Mr Humbert says that has changed.
“Today around 45% are women, and among under-35s about 60% are women. This is in line with the student intake at French law schools.”
The government fixes fees for some kinds of work but others can be set freely. Many, but not all, notaires offer some free advice, including at Conseil du Coin sessions in cafés on the first Saturday of the month (conseilducoin.fr).