Australia: 'The Paperless Office' - How Much Paper is Enough for Your Company?

Last Updated: 27 November 2011
Article by Michael Ryan

In Australia, there is no general requirement that records of correspondence and documents must be retained nor is there any general requirement that records must be kept in paper form.

Legislation provides specific requirements of record retention, non-compliance with which can result in strict criminal liability for the company and its officers. More generally, failure to maintain appropriate records may result in a loss of insurance coverage for the company and its officers. Therefore, it is important that companies are familiar with their obligations and establish a robust document retention policy and system.

We set out below a summary of some of the key record-keeping obligations of a company under Australian law. As you will see, the trend in Australia has been that electronic records are as good as paper records.

Section 12 of the Electronic Transactions Act 1999 (Cth) provides that if, under a law of the Commonwealth, a person is required to retain records of information - which encompasses both information in paper form and electronic communications (such as emails) - that requirement is satisfied by recording the information in electronic form, subject to certain conditions in relation to the electronic record keeping system being met.

Tax law

The Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 (Cth) and Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 (Cth) each contains provisions that require businesses to retain records that explain the transactions and other relevant actions of the business.

In most cases, records must be retained for a period of 5 years. This period runs from the date that those records were prepared or the completion of the relevant transaction or action, whichever is the later. In some instances, the period of retention may be extended by the Commissioner of Taxation beyond 5 years.

Records are required under the tax legislation to be kept "in writing in the English language or so as to enable the records to be readily accessible and convertible into writing in the English language". However, there is no express requirement in the tax law that the records must be kept in paper form.

In tax ruling TR 2005/9, the Australian Tax Office confirmed that records may be kept on paper or electronically, provided that, where electronic records are kept:

  1. 1. none of the record keeping requirements under the tax laws are compromised - eg the period of retention, accessibility and data security and integrity; and
  2. the records are kept accurately so as to enable the business' tax liability to be readily ascertained.

A copy of TR 2005/9 is available at:

Corporations Act


Companies are required to maintain registers (including registers of members, charges and optionholders) and minute books of the meetings of its directors and shareholders for the duration of its registration. In addition to this requirement, companies must preserve their registers for 5 years after the date on which the last entry was made.

Section 1306 of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) permits companies to prepare and store their registers and books in a "mechanical, electronic and other device". However, the matters stored in the device must be able to be reproduced "at any time" in a written form. Further, companies are required to take reasonable precautions to protect its records against damage and tampering.

Financial records

Under section 286 of the Corporations Act, a corporation must keep financial records for a period of 7 years. Unlike under the tax legislation, this period runs from the date after the transactions covered by the records are completed.

Financial records kept by the corporation must correctly record and explain the entity's transactions and financial position and performance, and must enable true and fair financial statements to be prepared and audited.

"Financial records" are defined broadly in section 9, and includes working papers that are needed to explain the methods by which financial statements are prepared and adjustments to financial statements.

The Corporations Act specifically allows for financial records to be kept in electronic form, provided they are convertible into hard copy and a hard copy is capable of being made available to a person entitled to inspect the records within a reasonable time (section 288).

Financial records may be kept in any language, although an English translation must be provided to any person entitled to inspect the records and who asks for a translation (section 287).


Under Industrial Relations Act 1996 (NSW), employers are required to keep daily records in relation to employees' remuneration paid and hours worked as well as their conditions of employment where required under industrial relations law or industrial instruments.

These records must be kept for at least 6 years, and may be kept in computerised form provided it is readily accessible and is convertible into a legible form in the English language.

There are other record-keeping requirements that may apply to companies in relation to their employees, for example under workers compensation legislation. Industry codes to which the company is a party may also impose specific record retention requirements.

Personal Information

There is an implied requirement under the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) that an organisation that holds personal information must maintain an appropriate record-keeping policy and system for keeping that information.

The National Privacy Principles (NPP) contained in schedule 3 of the Privacy Act provides that an organisation that holds personal information about an individual must, amongst other things:

  1. 1. on request, provide that individual with access to that information (subject to some exceptions); and
  2. take reasonable steps to: a) ensure that that information is accurate, complete and up-to-date; b) update that information where necessary; and c) protect that information from misuse, loss and unauthorised access, modification or disclosure.

Whilst the NPP does not prescribe the form in which personal information should be maintained, the above principles do suggest that those records must be secure but also easy to access and to update.

Once personal information collected by an organisation is no longer needed for any of the purposes permitted under the NPP, that information must be destroyed or permanently de-identified.

Documents to be used as evidence

In NSW, evidence held in electronic form or that is a reproduction produced from the electronic form of an original document may be adduced before a court as evidence of the contents of the original document. Section 51 of the Evidence Act 1995 (Cth) abolishes the common law principles that give superior evidentiary to an original, as against a copy, of a document in proving the contents of that document.

However, an entity should not rely entirely on electronic record keeping. One practical reason for this is that when two competing versions of a document exist, and one is an original hard copy and one is a photocopy or a reproduction from an electronic record, it will always be open to a court to determine which version should be accepted. Further, there may be instances where the original is required to be presented as proof of certain documents, such as certificates of title of real property.

Therefore, as a guide, the originals of important documents (such as agreements and certificates of title) and correspondence should be kept for at least the length of the longest relevant limitation period(s), after which court action in respect of the relevant causes of action will be statute-barred. The clear dilemma that arises here is that it is not possible to foresee the complete range of causes of action that may be relevant and further, limitation periods are rarely absolute. Therefore, a company must take care in using limitation periods as the sole or main measure of how long to retain its records. In other words, limitation periods should only be used to establish the minimum period of retention.

Australian Standards for Electronic Records

Where records are kept electronically, there should be robust processes in place to ensure that the record cannot be altered or manipulated.

Section 12 of the Electronic Transactions Act 1999 (Cth) requires that where information is kept in electronic form, the electronic form used must be:

  1. readily accessible so as to be useable for subsequent reference; and
  2. a reliable means of assuring the maintenance of the integrity of the information contained in the electronic form.

The Act makes express that the integrity of information is maintained if and only if the information has remained complete and unaltered (except for the addition of any endorsement or immaterial change which arise in the normal course of communication, storage or display).

Therefore, it is important to ensure that any electronic record keeping system adopted contains sufficient security safeguards.

There are national standards for electronic records against which you may assess your electronic record keeping system, including ISO/IEC 17799:2006 which provides best practice recommendations for information security management.

Companies should also consider incorporating and implementing these standards as part of their record retention policies and systems to ensure that the company is able to rely on its electronic records if and when the need arises.

Electronic communications

Where electronic records of electronic communications are kept in accordance with the requirements of Commonwealth laws, it is important to be mindful that in addition to keeping records of the electronic communication, additional information must be retained (again in a readily accessible form so as to be useable for subsequent reference) that enable the origin and destination of the electronic communication, and the time when it was sent and received, to be identified.

Destroying records

On the other end of the record-retention spectrum, companies should also be careful when destroying their records so that they do not breach their common obligation to retain any document that is potentially relevant to any litigation proceedings that has commenced or is anticipated.

Destruction of documents where proceedings are anticipated is a criminal offence, to which serious penalties may attach. Further, the law is not settled as to when litigation is anticipated' by a company such that information destroyed even when the company does not have actual notice of impeding litigation may nevertheless be considered to have been destroyed (see British American Tobacco v McCabe [2002] VSC 73). Therefore, it is important that companies regularly review their document retention policies and systems to ensure that sufficiently robust measures are in place to prevent deliberate destruction of materials for the purpose of avoiding disclosure in current or imminent litigation.

The assistance of Belle Jing, Solicitor, of Addisons in the preparation of this article is noted and greatly appreciated.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:
  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.
  • Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.
    If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here
    If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here

    Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

    Use of

    You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


    Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

    The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


    Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

    • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
    • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
    • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

    Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

    Information Collection and Use

    We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

    We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

    Mondaq News Alerts

    In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


    A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

    Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

    Log Files

    We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


    This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

    Surveys & Contests

    From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


    If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


    From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

    *** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .


    This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

    Correcting/Updating Personal Information

    If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

    Notification of Changes

    If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

    How to contact Mondaq

    You can contact us with comments or queries at

    If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.

    By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions