Paper originals still needed when using a document management system?

My company started a policy to scan every letter and paper document that enters our offices. Is it important to hold onto the paper originals?

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Absolutely! Except for when it isn’t.

The answer lies in the particulars of your organization’s regulatory, industry and legal requirements, and the strictures of your internal information governance policies. If you don’t have any, or don’t know what they are, then it’s time to get up to speed because, as it is written, ignorance of the law is no defense. And it has been shown time and time again that even a bad policy is better than no policy at all when it comes to defending your practices.

Meanwhile, understand that in general, an electronic record will carry the same weight as paper in the absence of the hard-copy original. The principle at work is known as “the best evidence rule,” which says that original materials must be produced if they exist (and were not improperly made unavailable by the producing party) but can be replaced by secondary evidence if they do not. Strictly speaking, that rule applies only to writings, recordings and photographs, but in practice it has been extended to digital documents and other electronic materials as well. 

In any event, it is not a recommended practice to scan and keep everything your organization has ever created or received. For instance, any information in your company’s possession at the time that a lawsuit is filed is subject to the discovery process. So your legal counsel will be happier if there is less material to be located, combed through and produced -- and your CFO will be as well since the cost of that discovery effort will be far less than it otherwise would have been. But even on a more practical level, reducing the amount of paper on hand can free up surprising amounts of office and storage space, a fact that often enables organizations to expand without having to invest in additional real estate.


This was first published in May 2012

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