This is the last post in my series dealing with suggestions for the corporate secretary when drafting board minutes. In this post, I deal with process issues relating to the protection of board minutes from unnecessary production.
For my post with an overview of all of the suggestions, click Writing Board Minutes for Peace of Mind. For my posts dealing with the first four issues in detail, click The "Front Page of the Newspaper" Test, Keep the Purposes Front and Centre, Draft to Minimize Unnecessary Production, and Draft to Protect Privilege and Confidentiality.
Circulation of Minutes
There are a number of process issues that can undermine a corporation's attempt to protect corporate minutes from production. An obvious process issue is how broadly the minutes are circulated. If board minutes are widely circulated or routinely made available to third parties, then it should not be surprising if a court concludes that there is no confidentiality to protect, notwithstanding how many assertions of confidentiality and privilege are contained in the board minutes.
Another obvious but over-looked process issue arises because directors typically receive a significant amount of briefing material prior to a board meeting, which will later be appended to the board minutes. This material may include documents that are confidential or privileged. If the material is subject to third-party confidentiality obligations, consideration should be given to marking that material as "subject to confidentiality obligations." If the material is privileged, the documents should be marked so that the claim for privilege is evident on the face of the document.
In-House Counsel as Corporate Secretary
A more complicated issue arises with the cross-appointment of in-house corporate counsel to the corporate secretary role. This is frequently the case, particularly in smaller organizations. However, this raises complications. For example, when in-house corporate counsel takes notes at the board meeting, it is not evident that these notes being taken in the role of a lawyer whom the board has asked to participate in or to monitor the meeting for the purpose of giving legal advice and, therefore, the notes are privileged. More likely, these notes are the notes of an officer of the corporation whose responsibility includes ensuring that minutes of the meeting are prepared and, therefore, without a claim to privilege.
It is prudent for in-house counsel to maintain two sets of notes when attending board meetings. Notes that are being taken as corporate secretary for the purpose, for example, of preparing or vetting the minutes, should be taken separately from those prepared for the purpose of following up on items as corporate counsel or as preparation for giving legal advice.
Draft Minutes and Notes
Another process issue concerns whether to retain draft minutes, the source notes from which the minutes are prepared, and notes prepared by directors. Very few of us are excellent note-takers. A notation may reflect a private thought or capture only half of the thought. The notes may simply be our way of paying attention and not meant to record accurately what occurred. If available for production, these documents may be cast doubt on the accuracy, integrity and completeness of the board minutes.
Although routine destruction is a possibility, the corporation and its officers and directors must be careful not to engage in spoliation (the intentional destruction of evidence). Documents that are relevant to a litigious matter should be preserved as soon as litigation is reasonably anticipated. This may be before any demand is made or any claim is asserted.
There is no avoiding the reality that the destruction of notes and drafts is a sensitive topic and fraught with danger. Even if innocently done, the destruction of notes and drafts can simply look bad. A more practical approach is to avoid creating unnecessary notes and drafts in the first place.
The corporate secretary can avoid multiple drafts and source notes by using a template that prompts the corporate secretary to take notes that contain the appropriate details for the minutes (but without a blow-by-blow of the meeting). This will require less revision to put into an appropriate form of minute of the meeting. There is also less chance of something being omitted innocently in the final minute due to editing that an adversary might seize on as evidence of manipulation of the board minute.
When dealing with a particularly sensitive matter, board members might be reminded that if they take notes, they should take care to prepare accurate and complete notes. If the practice in such circumstances if for the minutes to be prepared and circulated shortly after the meeting for an initial review (and then inserted in the board packages at a later date for approval), directors may find it unnecessary to take personal notes since they will have the opportunity to conduct a review while the matter is fresh in their minds. The contemporaneous preparation and review of the minutes can only serve to enhance their reliability.
There is no glamour in preparing board minutes and they are often put on the "back burner." Apart from the statutory requirement in almost all Canadian jurisdictions to keep these records, board minutes are a critical piece of documentary evidence when there is a challenge to the conduct of directors. Careful preparation of board minutes is worth the effort. Moreover, with some care, the preparation of board minutes may also subsequently assist a litigator in persuading a court that the board minute or a portion of the board minute should be protected from disclosure either to the adversary or to the public in general.
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