It is difficult to decide when it is appropriate to close a file and the topic is explored in more depth in the File Management and Diary Systems module. At a minimum, you must determine that all the work required on the file has been completed and reported upon, and that no potential future updates need to be put in place other than possible file destruction reminders. Once you have decided it is appropriate to close a file and remove it from your active records, you can strip certain documents from the file before it goes to storage, but you must be systematic.
In general, original documents should be returned to the client (with a copy, as appropriate, made for the file). These documents should be accompanied with a letter to the client indicating that the file is being closed, clearly setting out what the enclosed documents are and any statutory obligations the client has to retain them, and advising the client as to when the balance of the file will be destroyed.
Consider stripping out those documents that can be obtained from public offices (e.g., the court, Information Services Corporation, etc.), but also consider the public offices’ own retention periods and the cost and timelines associated with obtaining replacements if necessary.
This File Stripping Example from the Law Society of BC provides an example of one possible file stripping method but remember that all files are not equal. Details of any particular file may make this example inappropriate. Further discussion of ownership of file contents is found in the Withdrawal of Services module.
You should establish a method of numbering and organizing the closed files. The information should be maintained in a database, and perhaps in a hard copy file closing book that lists sequentially the file name, original file number, closed file number, storage box number, storage location and file destruction date. The complexity of your cataloguing system will depend on the number of files to be closed and the type of storage facilities to be utilized. The system should be detailed in your firm manual, so that regardless of when the file is closed, there is consistency in the method.
Keep in mind that a subsequent issue may arise that will require you to pull the closed file from storage urgently. If your cataloguing system fails to accurately describe where the file is located, the ability to pull files urgently will be difficult.
In some cases, you may have a difficult time establishing a file destruction date at the time a file is put into storage. You will need a system for calling up these files for reconsideration of the destruction date.
According to the Law Society of Saskatchewan Cloud Computing Working Group:
Digital file records should not be kept indefinitely. It is a bit of a fallacy that there is no cost in saving data forever. While it may not cost much to purchase more storage space, the Working Group would not recommend that, if files could be deleted. Once you digitize a file, you expose the information to a data breach risk, and the risk can be greater when saving things in the cloud. For security and privacy reasons, the information should only be kept as long as is required. Digital file retention should mirror that of physical file retention.
When storing files digitally, take care to ensure that the data is stored in a form that will be accessible over the life of the retention period or ensure that you review the format of your digital records periodically to ensure that they remain accessible.
You will also need to decide how to retain e-mail communication, which in some instances may form a crucial part of your file. Some practitioners are in the habit of creating a hard copy of all e-mails; others create e-folders for individual clients which they copy to a digital storage medium when they close the file. Whatever system you choose, ensure that your staff are aware of what system you are using so that they can attend to all forms of communication at the time of file closing. Make sure the naming and filing of the e-material is just as meticulous as for paper copies of documents.