When penalties can apply if documents are destroyed early or not on time, it is important to get their sentencing right.
Some documents will only have a light sentence, i.e. five years, others will have a longer sentence 15, maybe 27 years and others have a life sentence due to their historical significance.
The period required to retain documents can vary considerably due to the type of information they contain, the industry holding the documents and whether a State or Commonwealth Government law applies. So it is not simple and it is not straightforward. Proper sentencing requires trained personnel, someone who with good, practical experience managing records.
Good governance is the first step to eliminating the drama of document retention. Good governance is an efficient system with practical policies and procedures in place to streamline document management. But governance will only be as good as the people employing it, they must be trained and must understand its value.
Some records management humour said one of the top ten reasons not to have good organisation was, “hunting for important documents adds excitement to a boring schedule”. Excitement most of us could really do without. But this is something which does happen all too often.
These laws are increasing not diminishing in our electronic age and apply not only to digital records but hard copy as well. We have all become very aware of rights in regard to privacy, more educated about those rights and more stringent about any organisation which has access to private information. Privacy laws impact on the length of time documents with personal information can be retained and if they are held for too long penalties can apply. Unfortunately, too many businesses think there are only penalties if documents are not kept long enough.
As sentencing is key to managing retention and disposal, it does impact on the business bottom line. Knowing when to keep or destroy or transfer can reduce the number of documents stored which in turn reduces the amount of space required in-house or the need for offsite storage which will only keep growing.
It is essential to get disposal right, remember the penalties? They can be a significant amount of money. Sentencing is the tool to getting it right and should be used when a document is created or acquired, with a destruction date assigned to each document. Prior to disposal, the date must be reviewed as laws can and do change. If disposal can go ahead, it must then be done securely, not just put in the rubbish, that can lead to prosecution.
The National Archives of Australia has a flow chart which is helpful in understanding the sentencing process. The Archives calls it the “Decision tree for sentencing records”1 and real trees can be saved by making the correct sentencing decisions. Being environmentally responsible should also be part of corporate governance.
1. The National Archives’ flow chart can also be downloaded as a PDF