Magazine article Records Management Quarterly

Long-Term Retention of Paper Originals: A Case Study

Magazine article Records Management Quarterly

Long-Term Retention of Paper Originals: A Case Study

Article excerpt

Since the advent of non-paper records, there has been a continuing controversy as to the merits of retaining a paper original after it has been reduced to some non-paper format. Originally, this controversy revolved around the relative merits of paper versus microfilm, but lately, the context has changed to paper versus images.

The Great Paper Debate

One part of this dispute involved the question of whether paper had greater weight, or at least greater utility, in legal proceedings. According to the proponents of paper retention, original paper documents would be of greater evidentiary value in legal disputes, particularly when the document in question was signed or otherwise authenticated in a manner more obviously provable by means of a paper original.

Whatever the merits of this proposition, it has nonetheless had considerable consequences based upon its perceived value, particularly when combined with certain suppositions concerning the legal system and the nature and course of legal proceedings. For example, assuming that a signed original document has greater evidentiary weight than its imaged counterpart, the question naturally arises how long to keep that paper original. The answer depends upon how long the paper original is likely to be actually useful in some legal proceeding. Often, this question of usefulness is answered by attempting to determine the maximum time frame within which a legal proceeding could be instituted, and retaining the signed paper for that period. Since this period is determined by some statute of limitation, the analysis is fairly simple: Determine the maximum time allowed for suit by the appropriate statute of limitation, and keep any signed paper document for that period.

This approach has considerable emotional appeal, particularly if the matter likely to be sued over is at all serious. In such a case, the signed document is triumphantly retrieved and produced in court, and the matter effectively resolved in favor of the party in possession of the signed document.

The Worst Case Scenario

This is, however, worst case planning, and as such, it may have substantial drawbacks. It assumes, for example, that a lawsuit is both possible and likely on the last day of the limitations period - or at least likely enough to justify whatever expense is involved in the retention of the documents for that period. Thus, the entire concept's utility depends upon the validity of that assumption, and the burden it necessarily demands of maintaining every such document against that one suit on the last day.

Unfortunately, in many cases where decisions are made based upon such an assumption, its validity is, and remains unknown. Rather than subjecting it to vigorous scrutiny through devices such as data collection, statistical analysis or other tools which may yield objective information about the question, its proponents may simply assume its legitimacy. The burdens - financial, administrative, and other - are therefore accepted in the absence of any hard information as to the benefits, if any.

A Case Study

Recently however, such a study was completed. The general question above was, in this case, narrowed to a single class of documents - canceled checks - and the lawsuits in question reduced to a single type - prosecutions for check forgery. The organization was a large municipality, and the question was how long to keep paper originals after they had been scanned.

Proponents of prolonged retention of the paper originals took the position that the proper period for paper retention was the entire limitations during which a person might be prosecuted for check fraud, According to this theory, check fraud might be discovered at any time during the period, the original check would be needed for the prosecution, and the problem was serious enough to warrant whatever administrative and storage costs would be incurred by maintaining the originals for the entire period. …

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