Historically, a scrivener was someone who had the ability to write and read, and could therefore be involved in recordkeeping. Literacy was once a privilege available only to a few, with many citizens including some members of the upper classes relying on scriveners to accomplish tasks such as writing tasks, recording inventory, and so forth. Early scriveners gave rise to a number of professions, including law and accounting, and some people continue to use the term “scrivener” to refer to a notary, in a reference to an earlier time.
The word “scrivener” is derived from the Latin word for “scribe.” In law, a scriver acts as a scribe by transcribing legal documents such as contracts, or drawing up contracts on behalf of a lawyer. A scrivener may also be someone who keeps records and performs various administrative duties including taking dictation, transcribing recordings, and so forth. This term is rarely used in the legal profession today, and is more commonly seen in a historical sense.
Someone who is not a lawyer may act as a scrivener and draw up a legal document on behalf of a client, bearing no responsibility for legal errors unless the document deviates substantially from the form provided by the client. Especially in Europe, someone who acts as an agent or conveyancer may be known as a scrivener, in a reference to an earlier time when people relied on the services of others to make business arrangements and to enter contracts.
There are still regions of the world where illiteracy rates are high and people rely on scriveners in the traditional sense. Scriveners in illiterate communities read letters for people as well as writing them, and can explain documents, help to draw up contracts, and provide other forms of assistance for people who cannot read and write on their own. Scriveners have varying levels of education, ranging from people with a high level of competence to people with fairly low skills which are still better than those of most people in the community.
In law, there is also a concept known as “scrivener's error,” which states that if an error in a written document is clearly the result of a mistake on the part of the person who drafted it, it can be corrected with oral testimony, as long as the testimony is clear and unequivocal. For example, if a map misstates the name of a town as “Litleton” when it is clearly meant to be “Littleton,” this can be corrected under this doctrine.