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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.
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 paper and digital records.
State Records NSW 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 NSW. 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 Museums of History NSW or to another NSW public office.
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:
- the disposal of digital data that would otherwise require migration and further management, saving time and expense. The notion that storage of data is cheap is now being challenged - see the Future Proof blog for more information.
- saving money by not storing paper records in offsite and onsite locations for longer than necessary
- easier retrieval of information as records of continuing value have been identified and the rest are legally disposed of.
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.
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When to sentence
Sentencing on creation / point of creation
State Records NSW 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 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 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 retention requirements and final disposal of a licensing case file may depend on whether the license was granted (and when it expires) or was declined.
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 either on site or in secondary storage, it may be a good idea to implement a 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. State Records NSW has prepared guidance on creating a business case for a sentencing project.
For more information on secondary storage for records please see Solutions for Storage.
Sentenced records sometimes require resentencing. This generally occurs when the retention and disposal authority that they were originally sentenced with has been superseded or is no longer appropriate.
State Records NSW 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 confirmed with State Records NSW. The disposal authorisation for a record must be from the most appropriate current retention and disposal authority at the time the records are disposed of rather than the authority used at the time the records were initially sentenced.
For example: Records sentenced using the now superseded General disposal authority: personnel records will need to be re-sentenced using the current General retention and disposal authority: administrative records as the latter is the current legal authority for disposal.
From time to time State Records NSW 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 check for consistency with the current disposal authority requirements prior to carrying out the final disposal action). There are a series of steps to follow:
- identify changes in retention requirements or final disposal actions resulting from review or reissue of a retention and disposal authority
- identify the records that may need to be resentenced
- where there are changes to retention periods or disposal actions, then changed sentences need to be applied to the records
- control systems need to be updated with the new information.
|No changes have been made to the retention periods or final disposal action for the records
||Update the disposal class reference in your recordkeeping system to that in the new authority, but retain the sentence of the previous authority (as it is the same).
|The final disposal action previously applied to the record has changed (i.e. from Required as State archives to permission for destruction or vice versa)
||Resentence the records to apply the new disposal action. Update the information in your recordkeeping and control systems to reflect the changed requirements.
|The new retention period has been reduced (eg from 10 years to 7 years)
||It may be beneficial to apply the new retention period so that your public office can dispose of the records sooner. Update the information in your recordkeeping and control systems to document any disposal of records is consistent with the current authority.
|The new retention period has been increased (eg from 7 years to 10 years)
||Resentence the records to apply the new retention requirements. You are required to ensure that the record is retained for the extended period of time. Update the information in your recordkeeping and control systems to reflect the changed requirements.
What to do with hybrid files?
Many public offices are creating files 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 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: original or source records that have been copied (GA45).
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 Normal Administrative Practice.
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.
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.
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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 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 cannot 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 always:
- read the introduction to the authority and any associated guidelines for specific advice and guidance on the application and implementation of the authority
- be aware that some authorities only cover records for specific periods
- be aware that some authorities are only approved for use by specific public sector agencies or jurisdictions,for example the general authorities for universities, the public healthsector and local government.
For more information on retention and disposal authorities see Retention and Disposal
The disposal authority to be used must be currently authorised by State Records NSW. If your public office does not have a functional retention and disposal authority or is using an authority approved over 10 years ago, please contact State Records NSW. Museums of History NSW may not accept the transfer of State archives under an authority approved more than 10 years ago.
There are six basic steps in sentencing (see diagram in Appendix 1) as outlined below:
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 NSW.
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.
Identify the appropriate disposal class or classes (use the index to the General retention and disposal authority: administrative records 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.
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).
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.
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. The metadata in control records needs to be updated so that people can see when a record is due for destruction and under what disposal class. When the record is destroyed or transferred you will also need to document this process including the date of disposal, and the authorisation to dispose of the record.
If you are transferring records to the custody and/or control of Museums of History NSW you will need to identify the disposal class for each record. For more information on transfer, please contact Agency Services at the Museums of History NSW.
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 Museums of History NSW 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 the Standard on the physical storage of State records and Solutions for storage. 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.
Transfer to Museums of History NSW
Where 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 Museums of History NSW.
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 Museums of History NSW' 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 Agency Services at Museums of History NSW.
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 NSW has guidance on the types of records that can be destroyed under the NAP provisions of the Act (Normal Administrative Practice) 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 can be appropriately disposed of by individual staff under this provision of the Act.
Sentencing FAQs / Quick reference table
||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.
||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 NSW 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 should be documented and the continuing use of authorities over 10 years old confirmed with State Records NSW.
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 NSW recommends that the authority be revised as appropriate and submitted to State Records NSW 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 NSW.
||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 cannot 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.
||How do I sentence free text titled records?
||Ideally 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.
||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.
||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 NSW. 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. 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.
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Appendix 1 - Sentencing Flowchart
See this detailed flowchart (PDF 149kb) for further information on sentencing records.
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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.
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Appendix 3 - Sentencing checklist
Appendix 3 is a sentencing checklist.
Do you have copies of relevant general retention and disposal authorities (GAs)?
|Do you have an up-to-date functional retention and disposal authority (FA) that fully covers your unique records?
Do you have access to relevant control records?
Have you determined realistic goals and priortities?
|Do you have adequate staff resources with appropriate experience/knowledge of the public office's functions and records?
|Do you have appropriate facilities for the type and quantity of records to be sentenced?
|Implementing a disposal authority
|Determine which disposal authority you need to apply to the records (a General Retention and Disposal Authority or a Functional Retention and Disposal Authority)
|Determine the appropriate functions and activities that the record documents
|Identify the disposal class
|Identify the trigger event, and subsequently the date when the record can be disposed of
|If the trigger event has not occurred set a future review date
|Record disposal action
|Manage result of disposal action: destruction, transfer, still in use determinations
First published February 2001 / Revised edition February 2004 / Revised edition November 2008 / April 2011 / September 2013 / February 2015 / Updated August 2019 / Updated November 2022
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