Legal requirements for electronic records retention in Western Europe: an overview.

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Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Legal Requirements for Electronic Records Retention in Western Europe, which covers Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Legal Requirements for Electronic Records Retention in Western Europe is organized as a series of country reports, beginning with an overview of the country's legislative structure, followed by a description of legal resources that provide hyperlinks to the country's recordkeeping laws and regulations. The remainder of each report surveys legal requirements that apply to specific categories of electronic records.

In each volume, recordkeeping laws and regulations are identified, categorized, and summarized without interpretation. The objective of these publications is to minimize the time-consuming legal research associated with the development of retention schedules.

To identify the hundreds of laws and regulations cited in country reports contained in Legal Requirements for Electronic Records Retention in Western Europe, thousands of legal instruments were examined, but analysis and evaluation of their applicability to electronic records in the context of specific business operations are the reader's responsibility. The citations to laws and regulations are intended as a starting point for an organization's retention decisions, which may ultimately be based on non-legal considerations. Even then, however, laws and regulations define minimum retention periods that must be taken into account.

The following sections provide a topical overview of the records covered in individual country reports. It is expected that readers will consult reports for those countries where their organizations do business. Each country report is self-contained and is designed to he read on a stand-alone basis without reference to information presented in other country reports.

Corporate Documents

In all countries discussed in this book, commercial entities, including branches of foreign companies, must register with and submit certain information and documents to a government-operated commercial registry, which may be maintained by the national government or by a subnational jurisdiction. Certain documents must be submitted when a company is initially registered. Income statements, balance sheets, auditors' reports, and other documents must be submitted annually or at other specified intervals.

In most countries, documents can be submitted to commercial registries in electronic formats, and most of the registries maintain the documents electronically for online access. Commercial registries typically retain the submitted documents for some period of time after a registered company ceases to exist. Retention periods are not specified for the submitting entity's copies, but many of them are subject to retention requirements for accounting records.

Some Western European countries specify retention requirements for a company's organizational records. Examples, which vary from country to country, include minutes of a company's general and special meetings, minutes of meetings of directors or other governing bodies, lists of directors, records of directors' decisions and resolutions made without a meeting being held, registers of shareholders, registers of capital contributions, registers of bondholders, annual reports, auditors' reports, and other records.

Some countries specify retention periods for these records. Others simply state that the records must be available for inspection at a company's registered office for a designated period of time--3 years, for example--or with no time limit specified, the implication being that the records must be retained as long as the company exists.

Meeting minutes are likely to originate in electronic form, although copies may be printed for distribution to shareholders and other interested parties. Shareholder registers and similar lists may be maintained as databases. In some countries, laws and regulations specify that minutes, registers, and other corporate records can be retained in electronic format. More commonly, however, electronic recordkeeping is neither specified nor...

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