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Guideline 12 - Implementing a retention and disposal authority

Records disposal is an important part of good records management. Disposal aims to help public offices save time and money by not storing records longer than necessary whilst maximising their ability to retrieve records.

Overview

A disposal program is part of having a good records management program and both programs will assist your organisation to demonstrate compliance with the State Records Act 1998.

This guideline aims to assist NSW public offices implement records disposal programs in accordance with approved retention and disposal authorities in order to reduce the quantities and costs of unsentenced records.

Cost savings can be made:
The 2008 Storage and Disposal Survey conducted by State Records of all NSW Government agencies and State Owned Corporations indicated that cost savings can be made by sentencing records and implementing correct disposal procedures.

State Records would like to acknowledge the work of the National Archives of Australia as a valuable reference source used in the preparation of this guideline. Some of the recommendations in this guideline were based on the findings of the National Archives.

What is sentencing?

Sentencing is the process of implementing appraisal decisions with respect to your organisation's identified records retention requirements. Sentencing will generally be done in accordance with a retention and disposal authority approved by State Records. Sentencing entails identifying and classifying records according to a retention and disposal authority and applying the retention period and disposal action specified in the authority.
Disposal actions are:

  • destroying records that are no longer needed
  • transferring records either to State Records or to another NSW public office, or
  • keeping the records within your public office as they are still needed for business.

Appraisal is the process of analysis and decision-making undertaken to determine what records should be created and captured about the organisation's business and how long these records need to be retained. The appraisal process informs the development of requirements for systems to create, capture and manage records and the development of retention and disposal authorities.

Appraisal activities are often carried out as part of the design and implementation of recordkeeping systems, business systems and processes to ensure that recordkeeping is built into the systems.  This is increasingly important where records are either 'born digital' or digitised and need to be managed appropriately within business systems. The process of actually implementing appraisal decisions is known as sentencing and disposal. 

Benefits of sentencing and routine records disposal

Sentencing your public office's records has a number of benefits. These include:

  • saving money by not storing records for longer than necessary
  • easier retrieval of information as records of continuing value have been identified and the rest are legally disposed of

These benefits can be applied to digital and paper records alike. With regards to digital records, sentencing is beneficial as it results in the disposal of data that would otherwise require migration and further management, saving time and expense.
By sentencing your organisation's records with the approved retention and disposal authorities, and documenting the process, your public office can demonstrate that it has disposed of records legally under the State Records Act.

When to sentence

Sentencing as part of a records management program

Each public office in NSW should have a records management program. A records management program is an established program within a public office that encompasses the management framework, people and systems required to manage full and accurate records over time. According to State Records' Standard on managing a records management program, a public office's program must

  • include current retention and disposal authorisation for all records regardless of format
  • dispose of records using appropriate processes in accordance with authorised retention and disposal authorities

It is also a requirement of the Standard on the appraisal and disposal of State records (see Principle 5 - Implemented) that record sentencing and disposal actions are undertaken as a routine and regular part of the public office's records management program.

Sentencing on creation / point of creation

State Records encourages sentencing on creation, regardless of whether or not your public office is using a digital recordkeeping system. Sentencing on creation can be an integrated part of classifying and titling records and should be supported by procedures of the public office that concern the classification and titling of records.  Sentencing long term or short term records at creation means that required retention and ultimate disposal actions are identified early. Records can be managed according to their value and are stored for only as long as they are needed. It is particularly important that digital records are sentenced upon creation as like paper records, the system can become cluttered with records that could otherwise be disposed of. A cluttered digital recordkeeping system complicates searches and wastes resources.

If you are sentencing records in a controlled digital system such as records management software, a sentence may be applied automatically to a file according to the type of records that are likely to be contained in it. This process is automated rather than manual and may help the public office save resources as manual labour is not required to physically sentence the record. Record management systems when used correctly help to avoid a record backlog which would require additional manual resources to sentence.

Tip: It must be noted that in some cases, it is necessary to wait until the file is closed to apply the retention period and correct disposal class.  For example, the final disposal of a licensing case file may depend on whether the license was granted or declined. 

It is also a requirement of the Standard on the appraisal and disposal of State records that the sentencing of records is monitored before disposal, to ensure that the correct sentence has been applied to the record.

Sentencing prior to the transfer of records to secondary storage

Records that are transferred to secondary storage are typically records that are semi-active - that is they are records that are required infrequently to conduct current business. It is good records management practice to only transfer sentenced records to secondary storage.

Secondary storage is usually an offsite storage provider or other such facility. If records stored at such sites are sentenced before transfer, disposal actions can be applied to records when their retention periods have expired saving the public office unnecessary storage fees. The timely disposal of records stored in secondary storage streamlines the retrieval process as only records that are in current business use are kept and accessed.

Tip: If your organisation has an accumulation of records in secondary storage, it may be a good idea to implement a disposal project to check that all records are sentenced and to reduce the accumulation.  This would make records management more efficient and potentially save your organisation money.

For more information on secondary storage for records please see State Records' Solutions for Storage - Guidelines on the Physical Storage of State Records (Guideline 11).

Resentencing

Sentenced records sometimes require resentencing. Records that are already sentenced will generally need to be resentenced when the retention and disposal authority that they were originally sentenced with has been superseded or is no longer appropriate.

State Records recommends that functional retention and disposal authorities over 10 years old be reviewed internally to ascertain that the identified retention periods and disposal actions are continuing to meet business needs and recordkeeping requirements. The continuing use of functional authorities over 10 years old should be discussed with State Records.
The disposal class used to dispose of a record must be from the most appropriate and legal retention and disposal authority at the time the records are disposed of rather than the authority used at the time the records were sentenced.

For example: Records sentenced using the now superseded General Disposal Authority 2 - Administrative Records will need to be re-sentenced using General Retention and Disposal Authority 28 - Administrative Records as the latter is the current legal authority for disposal. 

From time to time State Records updates general retention and disposal authorities or a public office will require an update of their own functional retention and disposal authority. When this happens the former authority ceases to apply. Resentencing can be done as a project or can be done gradually (e.g. when records are due for disposal review and prior to the final disposal action). There are a series of steps to follow:

  • Identify records that may need to be resentenced
  • Changes in retention periods and disposal action need to be checked and where no changes have occurred to the sentence, the disposal sentence can be reinstated
  • If changes to retention period or disposal action, then changed sentences need to be applied to the record
  • Records controls need to be updated with the new information

For example:

If...

Then ...

No changes have been made to the sentence of a records Change the disposal class in your recordkeeping system (to that in the new authority), but retain the sentence of the previous authority (as it is the same).
The sentence previously applied to the record has changed Resentence the record and apply the new sentence. Update the information about the disposal class. Remember that any changes made should be updated in your recordkeeping system. 
The new retention period has been reduced (eg from 10 years to 7 years) Apply the new disposal class. It may be beneficial to apply the new retention period as well so that your public office can dispose of the records sooner. Please note that to dispose of records, you must use a current authority. Update information in your recordkeeping system.
The new retention period has been increased (eg from 7 years to 10 years) Apply the new disposal class. You are required to ensure that the record is retained for the extended period of time. Update information in your recordkeeping system.

What to do with hybrid files?

Many public offices are creating files, whether by intention or not, that contain digital and non-digital parts. For example a file may contain emails that are kept in digital form as well as paper-based letters. It can be difficult keeping track of file components that not only are in parts but are in various formats. It is advised that these files be treated the same as paper files and that the paper and the digital section of the one file are disposed of at the same time.

It may also be advisable, where possible, to scan all paper records within a hybrid file and thereby create a wholly digital file. This encourages greater accessibility and useability of the information contained within the file and less effort is required to implement disposal. The paper original once scanned may be disposed of under the terms of General Retention and Disposal Authority - Imaged Records (GA36).

Sentencing tools

To facilitate sentencing at creation and ensure sentencing is a routine part of managing records your organisation should develop and use supporting tools for different parts of the organisation.

Examples of sentencing tools:

  • Merged retention and disposal authorities. All disposal authorities applicable to your organisation can be merged to create a single reference tool. Caution should be exercised to ensure that the intent of the approved disposal decisions are not misrepresented in the single reference document. All updated disposal decisions will need to be reflected in the merged document. It should be noted that the merged document is not the authority for disposal but essentially a reference tool created for ease of use and convenience.
  • Business procedures that reference retention periods and disposal actions.  Retention periods and disposal actions can be built into business procedures for parts of the organisation responsible for managing their own records. These procedures should be supported by staff training. 
  • Retention and disposal authorities incorporated into recordkeeping systems. Retention and disposal authorities can be input/built-in to recordkeeping systems to facilitate automated sentencing.
  • 'Cheat sheets' tailored for business units or creation of a customised index.
  • Within the organisation's policies and procedures for particular business processes outline what working papers, facilitative or duplicate records can be disposed of in accordance with Normal Administrative Practice (NAP) (see State Records' Normal Administrative Practice Guideline 8). 

Sentencing of digital records

Although the general principles for sentencing are the same for all records no matter what their format, digital records do require particular attention.

For digital records, part of the sentencing process can be automated through competent recordkeeping systems. For example, a business system could be instructed to delete a record seven years after it has printed an invoice, or ten years after it has completed some other transaction. In a digital recordkeeping system, disposal can be automatically linked through the classification of records. However, it is vital to have review and quality control procedures in place to make sure disposal actions are being implemented correctly and in accordance with an appropriate retention and disposal authority. This is also a compliance requirement of the Standard on the appraisal and disposal of State records which states that records must be monitored before disposal actions are carried out (see Principle 3 Authorised).

To maintain easy accessibility and facilitate the retrieval of digital records, it is important that digital records are sentenced routinely and disposal is implemented. This will prevent an accumulation of digital records that are no longer required for business cluttering the system. A cluttered system can also make the maintenance of hybrid files difficult.

It is also vitally important to keep accurate metadata on any digital files that the public office may control as well as the contents of the file in an EDRMS / recordkeeping system. Recordkeeping metadata helps to keep the records more accessible, easier to retrieve and better understood within the broader context of the business they document. By having correct metadata controls, records can be more accurately sentenced and disposed of.

Tip: Control mechanisms for recordkeeping systems should also be disposed of appropriately. For example metadata in itself is a control record and should be disposed of as such. The General Retention and Disposal Authority - Administrative Records (GA28) should be consulted for the correct disposal of metadata and other control records.

How to sentence records

Before you start

Before you start sentencing records, you must be familiar with your organisation's role, structure, functions and activities - currently and in the past.
Any person sentencing records, especially if they are sentencing very old records or legacy records must be aware of the organisation's past history as well as any other agency or organisation that may have created or used the records. Sentencers also need to be able to tell the difference between matters that concern the organisation directly and those that outside public offices send to it for information or comment.
Before you can properly start sentencing records, you must have the appropriate retention and disposal authorities.

A retention and disposal authority is a formal instrument that identifies the records which an organisation creates and maintains, and for how long they should be kept to meet regulatory, business and community requirements. A retention and disposal authority also identifies whether records should eventually be destroyed or retained as State archives.
You can not sentence without the right retention and disposal authorities. A disposal authority will have a statement defining the scope of the authority on the disposal authorisation page.
When sentencing records with a General Retention Disposal Authority:

  • Please read the introduction to the authority for specific implementation advice and guidance on the application of the authority
  • Be aware that some authorities only cover records for specific periods
  • Be aware that some authorities are developed for specific public sector agencies or jurisdictions, including general disposal authorities for universities, public health agencies and local government.

For more information on retention and disposal authorities see Disposal Authorisation Procedures

The disposal authority to be used must be currently authorised by State Records. If your public office does not have a functional retention and disposal authority, please contact State Records before you begin your sentencing project. It is a requirement of the Standard on the appraisal and disposal of State records, that functional authorities are regularly reviewed to ensure they are still meeting the needs of the organisation. State Records may not accept the transfer of State archives under an authority approved more than 10 years ago.

Sentencing steps

There are six basic steps in sentencing (see diagram in Appendix 1) as outlined below:

StepAction

Determine which retention and disposal authority to apply to the record (i.e. which general or functional authority)
Tip: Only use up-to-date retention and disposal authorities. If you are unsure, check with State Records.

2

Determine the appropriate functions and activities that the record documents (this can be done by examining an existing record or when creating a new record). 

Tip: Make sure you and your sentencers understand the function and business of the organisation.

3

Identify the appropriate disposal class or classes (use the consolidated index to General Retention and Disposal Authorities 12 and 28 to help you locate the correct class if the matter pertains to these administrative areas).

If more than one class is appropriate, choose the class with the longest retention period. 

Tip: If you can not find an exact match to the words you are looking for in the index, try to be broader or look for synonyms. For example, if you are looking for 'rubbish' you will not find it in the index, however you will find 'waste'. It may also be helpful to review the 'subject' of the 'rubbish' file to determine which business process it relates to.

4

Sentence the record using the disposal action in the disposal class. Identify the trigger event and a date when the record can be disposed of or identify that the record is to be retained as a State archive. 

Tip: It is a good idea at this stage to separate those records which are to be destroyed and those that are to be retained further (either by the organisation or as a State archive). 

5

Implement the disposal action - if the trigger event has already occurred (such as action is completed), confirm, obtain approval and implement the disposal action.

Tip: If disposing of records, disposal authorisation information needs to be retained.

6

If the trigger event has not occurred e.g. the record is still in active use, set a review date for the future. 

Tip: Make sure you update your control records 

General rules for sentencing

Below are four important rules that must be followed when sentencing records.

Use the longest retention period

If you find a file that fits into more than one disposal class, always use the class with the longest retention period. For example, if one document fits into a class that says retain minimum of 7 years after action completed, then destroy', and another document on the same file belongs to a class that says 'retain minimum of 10 years after action completed then destroy', keep the whole file for ten years after action completed. If most of the file fits into a class that says 'retain minimum of 7 years after action completed, then destroy' but if some documents on the same file belong to a class that says 'Required as State archives', the whole file must be transferred as a State archive to the control and/or custody of State Records.

Never cull records from files

Never cull or remove records from files, unless a retention and disposal authority specifically tells you to do so. Culling from files is usually inefficient and may compromise the integrity of the file. A record on its own may have little value, but it may become important if it gives more information about other, more significant, records on the file.
Remember, if more than one disposal class applies to the file, keep it for the longest period, even if this means as a State archive. Do not dismantle the file.

Check the contents of the file

File titles will give you a clue as to what to expect on a file. If you are sentencing at creation with records that are titled using a thesaurus or business classification scheme, the process should be straightforward. However, file titles can be misleading or inaccurate, particularly with older records or where there has been issues applying correct classification or file titles. Be sure to check the contents of the files during sentencing of legacy records, or before destruction or transfer for records sentenced on creation.

Document your decisions

Public offices must be able to account for their records, and you may need to prove that you destroyed records according to a valid retention and disposal authority. If you have control records for the records you are sentencing, such as indexes, registers or movement cards, or a computerised version of any of these, you will need to update or annotate these or document the disposal in some other way so that people can see what became of individual records. Information documented should include when a file is due for destruction and under what disposal class. When the record was destroyed or transferred you will also need to document this process including the date and time of disposal, and the authorisation to dispose of the record. For more detail on the documentation and authorisation requirements for sentencing see Principle 4 Accountable in the Standard on the appraisal and disposal of State records.
If you are transferring records to the custody and/or control of State Records you will need to identify the disposal class for each record. There are other documentation requirements for the transfer of control/custody to State Records. For more information on this, see Procedures for transferring custody of records as State archives.

Managing the records after sentencing

In order to manage the sentenced records efficiently, plans and mechanisms should be in place for the disposal of records before sentencing begins.

Guidelines, policy and procedures should be in place for:

  • the transfer of records to secondary storage
  • the destruction of records
  • the transfer of records to State Records as State archives

Transfer to secondary storage

If records are required to be retained for a period of time by the public office, they may be stored on site or transferred offsite to a storage provider. If your organisation has made the decision to send the records to a storage provider, please consult State Records' Standard on the physical storage of State records and Solutions for storage: Guidelines on the physical storage of State records (Guideline 11). Special mention needs to be made regarding digital records. Digital records need to be stored in such a way that they will remain accessible and authentic for the entirety of their retention period.

Destruction of records

After sentencing, some records may need to be destroyed. Stringent procedures need to surround the destruction of records. For more information, see Destruction of records: A practical guide (Guideline 3). Digital records may also require timely destruction. For more information on the destruction of digital records see Recordkeeping in Brief: Destroying digital records (No. 51).

Transfer to State Records

After records have been designated as 'required as State archives' in an approved, current retention and disposal authority and they are no longer required for business use by the public office, they may be transferred as a State archive to State Records.

It should be noted that records that are more than 25 years old are regarded as no longer in use for official purposes in a public office unless the public office has made a 'still in use determination' covering them. A public office should therefore transfer records required as State archives to State Records' control once they are 25 years old. The records should be transferred earlier if they cease to be in use for official purposes earlier.

If you are transferring records, please contact State Records and read the State Records procedures Transferring custody of records as State archives.

Normal Administrative Practice (NAP)

Some records may be disposed of in accordance with Normal Administrative Practice (NAP). NAP allows you to destroy records that do not document your organisation's business decisions or are not significant to your organisation's activities.
State Records has guidance on the types of records that can be destroyed under the NAP provisions of the Act (Normal Administrative Practice, Guideline 8) however it should be noted that care should be taken. Public offices should develop internal policies and procedures to define and authorise what is meant by normal administrative practice for their organisation and document the type of documents and records that are disposed of under this provision of the Act (see Standard on the appraisal and disposal of State records - Principle 3 Authorised).

Sentencing FAQs / Quick reference table

No.QuestionAnswer
How do I determine the function/activity of the record?  If the records in your organisation are titled according to a functional thesaurus, these titles should reflect the functions and activities being performed in your organisation.
If the records have been titled using an older classification system you may find several functions and/or activities within a record. If this is the case, examine the record closely and cross-check with disposal classes. 
2 How do I determine which retention and disposal authority to use?  Determining which authority to use can be done by determining what kind of records you are dealing with. Sentencers need to be able to distinguish between functional and administrative records and this will assist in deciding whether to use the public office's functional disposal authority or a general disposal authority.
Can I use an old retention and disposal authority? State Records recommends that functional retention and disposal authorities approved over 10 years ago be reviewed internally to ascertain that the identified retention periods and disposal actions are continuing to meet the business needs and recordkeeping requirements of the organisation. This process and associated outcomes will need to be documented and State Records will need to be informed that the review has occurred. The continuing use of authorities over 10 years old should be discussed with State Records.
General retention and disposal authorities that have been superseded should not be used and current records that have been sentenced using these authorities should also be updated (see section on resentencing).
When do I need to update my organisation's functional retention and disposal authority? A functional retention and disposal authority should be updated if a review of the authority has identified significant gaps in coverage or there has been significant changes to recordkeeping requirements (such as changes resulting from the introduction of new laws, regulations or standards, unforseen community expectations becoming apparent or changes in identified business needs or practices). State Records recommends that the authority be revised as appropriate and submitted to State Records for approval. 
What do I do if I can not allocate a disposal class? If you can not find an appropriate disposal class that describes the record you are looking at, then put the record aside. You may not be able to sentence that record using your current retention and disposal authorities and should seek advice from colleagues or contact State Records.
What do I do if a file has more than one part?  Some files have more than one part to them. Generally you can sentence each part as a separate item and either destroy or keep them according to instructions in the retention and disposal authority. However, it may be that the parts you plan to destroy have relevancy to another part and is needed to understand the part that would survive. In this situation it is best to consult with the people who regularly use those particular records to ascertain if one part is needed to understand another. 
What do I do if I can not find a disposal class that relates to all the activities in a record?  Although it is not good records management practice, some organisations keep files which relate to various functions and/or activities. Often the title will contain the term miscellaneous or general. These are files of documents that do not really relate to the same activity, and you will need to find disposal classes that apply to all activities on the file, and follow the rule about keeping the file for the longest retention period. As a shortcut, if you can find a class that says to retain the record as a State archive you need not look any further.
If you can not find a disposal class for any activity within a file, refer to number 5 in this table. 
What do I do with multiple copies of documents? In some cases, duplicate copies of records and publications may be destroyed under the Normal Administrative Practices provision of the State Records Act.
Generally once you have identified original documents, such as minutes of a meeting, you may not need to examine the copies further. However caution does need to be exercised as the copies may still be important to the agency, for example they may have hand written notes on them. It is also important to remember that you should never strip or dismantle a file even if there are multiple copies of one document within the file. 
How do I sentence free text titled records?  Records should always be titled using a thesaurus or standardised classification scheme however in older systems they may have been titled with free text.
When sentencing records titled using free text, there can be clues in the title to help you find the correct activity. For example if the title contains the word 'purchase' the activity may be 'acquisition'.
However, file titles may not always accurately reflect the contents of the file and as a precautionary measure contents should be quickly checked to ensure they match the title.
Some files, usually older files, may also be titled by subject. Generally files that are subject based will be covered by several disposal classes. 
10  Is there a difference between sentencing paper records and digital records?  The process for sentencing digital records should not differ from that of the process of sentencing paper records. The title and contents of a digital record should indicate the function and activity of the record. The advantage of digital systems is that they can allow you to determine a disposal class for a record at the time that it is created and will often automate the sentencing process by alerting you to a trigger event. 
11  What do I do if my organisation wants to retain the records longer than the period set in the disposal authority?  Public offices may retain records for longer than the minimum required retention periods identified in functional or general authorities without needing to seek permission from State Records. Any decisions to retain records for longer periods than those stated in retention and disposal authorities should also be documented along with the reasons for extending the retention. It is also good practice to have internal policy or procedure about approval processes for extending retention requirements. 

Internal approval for disposal

Whether you are doing a large sentencing project on a backlog of records, or simply doing the yearly disposal, it is important that you have the proper approval for all decisions to keep, destroy or transfer records (see principle 3 Authorised and principle 4 Accountable of the Standard on the appraisal and disposal of State records). Disposal activities need to be approved, supervised and authorised in accordance with established procedures and by those with the appropriate delegated authority. The disposal of records needs to be documented including the nature and time of the disposal action, the identity of the person approving the action and the disposal authority authorising the action.

What this means is that disposal needs to be addressed in the records policy and procedures of the organisation, and an approved process needs to be in place. For destruction of records, forms such as a destruction authorisation form that is endorsed within your public office, are the easiest way to document authorisation.

Further resources

Appendix 1 - Sentencing Flowchart 

See this detailed flowchart  (PDF 149kb) for further information on sentencing records.

Appendix 2 - Sample record destruction authorisation form

This sample record destruction authorisation form (Word 57kb) can be customised for use in public offices when seeking authorisation to undertake the destruction of records.  The form includes fields for

  • listing the records to be destroyed
  • type of disposal action to be undertaken
  • identity of the person authorising the disposal action
  • retention and disposal authority authorising the action

It is also advisable, if possible to get a certificate of destruction if using a destruction contractor.

Appendix 3 - Sentencing checklist

Appendix 3 is a sentencing checklist.

© State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority, 2001.
First published February 2001 / Revised edition February 2004 / Revised edition November 2008 / April 2011
This work may be freely reproduced and distributed for most purposes, however some restrictions apply.

ISBN 0-7313-9355-4