When must you print?

Digital documents are all well and good, but when does your business need & require hard copies?

As anyone working in an office knows, print is far from dead. Sure, printing emails is a waste of ink and paper. True, the company Intranet is a more efficient way to share information than endless memos and chunky, out-of-date policy guides and handbooks. All the same, for some purposes the old ways still work best. 

But are there still times when printing isn't just a good idea, but a necessity? Are these still documents that your business might have to print? Well, it all depends upon the structure of your business and the industry it's operating in. There are times when electronic systems are the answer, and situations where only the old-fashioned hard copy will do.

Why must you print?

While there are times when a printout is preferable when you're proof-reading a company report, for instance most businesses are committed to reducing the amount of ink and paper they use, partly for cost-cutting efficiencies and partly as a means of reducing environmental impact and meeting corporate social responsibility goals. Yet there are still two good reasons why you might print out a document: 

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  • There's a practical consideration. In some industries, such as construction, using paper documents can win in situations where electronic alternatives may be expensive or not the best fit for conditions in the field. While new systems and mobile devices are shrinking the number of situations where this applies, paper is sometimes the most practical way to go.
  • There are legal or compliance considerations. In most cases the company has a legal obligation to print and store hard copies of a document. In others, the company needs to be able to provide stakeholders and government or regulatory bodies with hard copies. Either way, a paper printout is a must.

Common requirements All businesses have to maintain certain records. Even sole traders need to retain invoices, remittance documents, bank statements, accounts and evidence of expenses. Limited companies may also have to keep a wide range of employment records and contracts, share certificates and stock transfer forms, board minutes, shareholder resolutions, supplier contracts, client contracts, other agreements and company accounts. Depending on the type of document, these records may need to be kept for up to six or seven years and potentially longer.

How much of this needs to be kept as a hard copy? Surprisingly little. Electronic records are now perfectly acceptable for most archival purposes and both Companies House and HMRC are working towards fully digital operations. Approximately 83% of companies are now formed electronically, while 80% of statutory documentation can now be filed that way.

Whatever paper documents you work with can also be scanned and stored in a digital format; one reason why it's always worth replacing that fleet of tired, space-hogging laser printers with a smaller number of fleet and compact Multi-Function Devices. Legally, the scanned documents must remain accessible and legible, meeting key government or industry-specific standards, and need to able to be authenticated by an officer of the business or authority to which the records belong. Just bear in mind that many documents stored this way specifically registers, indices, accounting records, agreements, minutes or memoranda - must be reproducible as a hard copy, and the company must take precautions against any falsification.

Yet most legal advisors would still recommend keeping some documents in a hard copy format. Chiefly, any document that needs a signature or that might potentially be used in court should be kept rather than scanned and destroyed, while share certificates, stock transfer forms, board minutes and shareholder resolutions are generally best stored in paper form.

Certain agreements have to be set out in writing, including credit agreements, employment contracts, arbitration agreements and assignments of intellectual property, and maintaining the originals can be a sensible move in case of any future legal issues. Property documents, including leases and title deeds, are generally stored this way. If your business receives confidential information during the course of a project or deal, there may be a requirement to keep this as hard copy in a secure storage facility, with policies on when and how it should be returned or destroyed. 

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Despite the development of secure, internationally recognised and fully legal digital document and signature standards, many UK corporations still widely perceive signed hard copy the old wet ink' document as more secure and legally compliant. Your own company may even have stated policies on what must be printed and when printouts can or must be destroyed. 

Industry Requirements

Beyond the regulations placed on all UK companies under UK law, many industries come under specific legislation or are regulated, giving them further responsibilities. These will depend on the industry, relevant legislation and any EU regulations though these are, of course, likely to change in the wake of Brexit. These requirements can be complex, spread across multiple organisations or subject to updates, making them surprisingly hard to nail down. If you want to ensure compliance, it's well worth taking proper legal advice.

Even here you may find that hard copy is no longer strictly necessary. Most industries and regulatory bodies are shifting to electronic filing or reporting systems, and even in regulated industries like the financial services industry or pharmaceuticals you may be able to create, use and store the vast majority of documents in electronic form. Even import/export documents for excise, trade relief or international trade declarations can be electronic, while the majority of a legal firm's documents and case files can be archived in electronic form.

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Yet there are always advisories and gotchas. While legal firms can store legal documents in electronic formats, the Law Society advises that firms should consider whether the absence of paper documents will be detrimental to the client's interests before you agree such storage methods with your client.' Pharmacies are required to retain hard copies of all written prescriptions and a written record of verbal prescriptions for three years from the last dispensing date. 

While companies can keep excise, trade relief and international trade declaration documents electronically, they're advised to seek advice from HMRC on storage and provide detailed documentation in support. And in some industries, including air transport, there's still a requirement to retain all documentation as a hard copy in addition to any electronic storage system. 

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When it comes down to it, the world is moving in an ever-more digital documentation direction, and most businesses and authorities would agree that digital workflows are more efficient. Yet companies and regulators tend to be cautious and conservative, preferring the sure, tried and tested method over technological solutions; wet ink over digital safeguards. While that persists there will always be a need for paper - and some documents you must just print.

So you know when you must print, but when should you print?

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