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Hot topic: bonfire at the SRA

In a recent application to the High Court, the SRA was granted permission to destroy hundreds of thousands of documents obtained through historic…

In a recent application to the High Court, the SRA was granted permission to destroy hundreds of thousands of documents obtained through historic interventions. Given the associated storage costs of archiving everything, the order should lead to significant savings for the regulator and the profession alike.

We discussed the decision with Joanne Smith, Solicitor and Consultant within Compli, as part of our '60 seconds with...' feature for this week's newsletter:

Joanne, the High Court recently granted an order allowing the SRA to destroy documents seized as a result of historic interventions. What is that all about?

The SRA has an Intervention Archive Department that arranges for any files acquired by the regulator as part of an intervention (and which are not required for the purposes of disciplinary proceedings) to be sent into storage. Over the years, the number of interventions has increased and so has the number of documents. To cut a long story short, it is costing £1.25m per annum to store about 400,000 boxes. As the Solicitors Act 1974 is not very clear about what should happen to these documents, no-one wanted to stick their neck out and make a call without a court order. And who can blame them?

So can the SRA do what it wants now?

No. The High Court judge hearing the case was cautious not to give the SRA 'carte blanche' to go light a fire in the storage facility. In short, the order lets the SRA destroy non-original documents in cases where at least seven years has passed since the date of the intervention. It also applies on a rolling basis to any documents currently held that were obtained less than seven years ago, therefore preventing another backlog. Any documents from future interventions will need to be subject to a separate court order which can be obtained after another seven years has passed.

That is a lot of sevens! Does that mean law firms should take a leaf from the SRA's book and only hold onto documents for seven years?

Absolutely not. Seven is not a magic number, although I imagine it will enter folk lore now. It is simply a timeframe set by the court to manage an eye-watering expense currently burdening the profession. Some documents should never be destroyed and the SRA is certainly not allowed to destroy original documents - that is not part of the deal.

Document archiving and retention projects are challenging because some documents can be destroyed after a brief time period and others need to be retained indefinitely. It is best not to be an ostrich though because getting to grips with storage costs can be hugely beneficial to firms. If anyone out there wants some help with a project of this magnitude then please get in touch. The team is ready to help!

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