The Original vs. The Copy – Does It Really Matter From An Evidentiary Perspective?
While there are many hurdles a business document needs to overcome in order to be admitted as evidence in court, there is one hurdle that many clients routinely inquire about – the legality and admissibility of digital image copies, in lieu of original documents. While lawyers recognize this as a best evidence issue, a legal doctrine that states an original piece of evidence is superior to a copy, for clients this is a matter of whether they need to retain an original signed contract or could they save space in their file cabinets and rely on a scanned copy on their hard drive. Although state laws concerning admissibility of evidence vary, states have generally adopted the language, in whole or part, of the Uniform Rules of Evidence (“URE”) and/or the Uniform Photographic Copies of Business and Public Records as Evidence Act (“UPA”). For the purpose of this article the differences between the URE and the UPA are not important or relevant. Accordingly there is a nationwide consensus that a digital image copy can generally overcome a best evidence challenge and be admitted as the original document.
The fundamental basis for states admission of digital duplicates can found in the URE, which allows copies that are established as business records to be admitted into evidence “to the same extent as the original.” Duplication is permitted by any technique that “accurately reproduces the original.” Similarly under the UPA, duplicate records are admissible as the original, in judicial or administrative proceedings, provided that the duplicate was generated by a “process which accurately reproduces the original.” The UPA permits the destruction of original documents, unless preservation is required by law (i.e. wills, negotiability documents and copyrights). Hence, the law permits the destruction of original documents subject to certain evidentiary requirements.
When read together and interpreted by the majority of states, the URE and the UPA allow duplicate copies to be given the same evidentiary weight as originals, so long as those copies are properly generated, maintained and authenticated. Therefore, clients are encouraged to adopt certain practices when copying their business documents:
- The copies should be produced and relied upon during the regular course of business.
- The business should have a written policy specifying the process of duplication, as well as where and how copies will be stored. This written policy should be made available to the business’s custodian(s) of records.
- The business’s written policy should include a requirement that at least one witness be present at the time of duplication that would be available to testify under oath that the generated duplicate accurately and completely represents the original.
- The business’s written policy should be subject to regular review in order to ensure the stated compliance procedures are satisfied.
Ultimately, clients should feel free to indulge their desire to “save the space” and dispose of an original contract, so as long as the above duplication practices are adhered to and all other relevant evidentiary and other legal requirements are satisfied. Clients should also be aware that since the medium for storing electronic records must meet certain legal standards, their choice of hardware is critical when it comes to admissibility of a duplicated record. Given the variety of legal and technological nuances that need to be taken into consideration, when in doubt it is always best to seek the guidance of a qualified and experienced attorney to avoid any potential legal pitfalls. The above article reflects the national trend in the United States and so to ensure that your business has complied with state and/or country specific regulations it is once again best to contact a qualified and experienced attorney who practices in your jurisdiction.