While you already know how important document control is in terms of organization, accessibility, security and even standardization, you may not have known just how important a role it plays in regards to the law too. Think about it for a moment – in today’s age of electronic documents and files, how do you even begin to determine who is the legal owner of data when disputes arise? Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 34(a) is a law in which litigants must hand over documents that are in their ‘possession, custody or control’. What this means is that company documents can be stored, searched and created – in hardcopy as well as on hard drives and computers. It begins to get a little more complicated however when document control is outsourced to outside parties or cloud based systems. In that case, ‘possession, custody or control’ is not always as easy to prove as it ought to be.
The Legal Side of Document Management
Let’s take a look at the different things that are taken into account to determine who has the ultimate responsibility over electronic documents. There are three things to note in particular, including the following:
What does the law say?
The rule in question (that’s Rule 34(a), just to recap) can easily apply to hardcopies and physical items of course, and for good reason too. In addition to the phrasing ‘possession, custody or control’, the rule also includes the phrase ‘only one of the enumerated requirements must be met.’ This means that document control is seen just the same as possession or custody of documents, being a rather broad term. Context is all important in matters of the law, and in this case the context means having legal authorization, aka ‘control’ over documents that may be in dispute. But of course, as we all know from Law & Order and other such TV shows, even legal context may not be enough.
Looking at case law
Luckily, case law offers a good way to see whether or not control over electronic data can be disputed. Many battles have been faced in the courts over that very thing, from major manufacturers such as Proctor & Gamble fighting over market share data, to small companies facing up to mega corporations over licenses – even patents have come under the radar (look at Apple vs Samsung for a recent example). These past disputes help those in new disputes by setting legal precedents. They also show without any doubt how important it is to have a simple, easy to manage document management system – especially if you don’t want to find out first-hand how tough it is to deal with legal issues over paperwork.
What does this all mean?
The bottom line is that if and when documents are required in discovery or in the event of any sort of dispute or claim, you cannot simply state that vendors or other third-party provider are keeping the data in question. In many cases, companies are held responsible for the control of documents. Going back to Rule 34(a) again, that means the company needs to present the documents if they are requested in a legal situation. As a final word of advice, it is also a good idea to make sure that you have a very clear agreement with your document control provider so that everyone is 100% sure of who controls the documents – legally and literally.