A public instrument is any legal instrument recorded with and authenticated by a public office or employee. Any such instrument, in order to carry weight, must be genuine and authentic. Public instruments consequently must bear the name, title and seal of the official issuing them, and they should be written in the presence of witnesses and attested by them.
A public instrument is generally admissible in evidence without the necessity of preliminary proof of its authenticity and due execution. In other words, public instruments are self-authenticating documentary evidence. A presumption of regularity and validity attaches to public instruments; for the instrument to be rebutted, it must be proven in court to contain a willful material error.
Typical types of public instruments include:
- state and federal laws
- laws of foreign nations
- vital records
- legislative acts
- judicial instruments
- judgments, orders, and decrees
- court writs or process
- court records
- rules of court
- notarial acts
- municipal and county charters
- ordinances and resolutions of municipalities
- administrative agency rules
- items under official governmental seal
- any deed or formal agreement recorded and filed with a government register or records office
- ex: title-deeds, conveyances, wills, company charters, public inventories, etc.
Civil and Scots law
Public instruments at civil law are generally known as public instruments (Germ: öffentlich Urkunde, Fr: acte public, Sp: instrumento público) and under Scots law as probative or self-proving instruments. These categories refer more to the level of evidenciary validity given an instrument in court. Under these law systems, to be received as a public instrument, a document must be subjected to a number of conditions, including execution before two or more witnesses, and before a civil-law notary or public officer authorized to execute such functions, or which is testified by a public seal, or has been rendered public by the authority of a competent judicial officer, or which is certified as being a copy of a public register. Any such instrument is said to prove itself, that is, it has the privilege of being free from challenge or rebuttal at court.