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In Law, what is a Scrivener?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Melonlity — On Jun 24, 2014

@Markerrag -- such errors are very hard to fix. That is particularly true if people who have knowledge of what Fred and Joe should own have passed away. That is common when it comes to property law. The people that drafted the original land descriptions might have done it 100 years ago and aren't around to testify.

One very good thing about property descriptions these days is that they are often written with the aid of a computer that can check for errors.

By Markerrag — On Jun 24, 2014

@Logicfest -- all too true and those can usually be dealt with by agreement of all parties. However, those mistakes that are not common are hard to deal with and can lead to lawsuits flying back and forth.

For example, let's say Fred owns land that he knows contains a pond. At some point when the land description was written covering Fred's land, the lake was not included. A competing land description put's the lake on Joe's land. Which description is correct and which one contains an error? When questions like that pop up, the chances are good that Fred and Joe will start flinging lawyers at each other.

By Logicfest — On Jun 23, 2014

You see the term "scrivener's error" pop up regularly in property law. A legal description in a plot of land is a very complex animal and it is very easy to make a wrong notation. Scrivener's errors are so common in property law that such mistakes are common and ways have been dealt with to resolve obvious errors. Those mistakes usually become obvious during land transfers and will be dealt with when discovered.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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