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  • Matt Balogh

Going Paperless at Home

Whether you are someone with a filing cabinet, boxes, or a few folders or plastic sleeves of personal documents at home, it is likely that you can reduce the amount of paper you keep. Research conducted by the University of New England has found that people tend to keep far more paperwork than they need to. Changing to an electronic process for managing your personal information and documents saves space, makes it much easier and faster to find items and is significantly more secure. Additionally, you can share selected items and you can automate many of the processes. So if you are ready to replace your desk with a sofa, read on.

But first, a caveat, this a guide only, and does not comprise legal advice.

Dispelling myths

Today, paper documents with signatures and witnesses are largely only required for items that make assertions that cannot otherwise be verified. Everyday transactions, vehicle registrations, tax documents, receipts – none of these are required to be kept in hardcopy. This is because documents that relate to transactions that occur are validated by the existence of the matching transaction – such as a credit card debit. The same logic applies to nearly all documents. Receipts for work, tax, income, share dividends can all be stored exclusively electronically, because they are validated by the transaction. Equally, a deal or purchase made by exchange of emails that are only ever stored electronically is usually quite sufficient – if someone needs to authenticate these, you can print and sign them at a later time – but mostly, government departments and businesses are perfectly happy with electronic documents. The Australian Taxation office does not require any document in hardcopy or if they do so – print-outs of scanned documents are acceptable. No hardcopies are required for financial audits. Car registrations are completely adequate stored electronically. The same with share purchases, dividends, donations, receipts – damn near everything. So that dispels the myth of needing to keep paper documents – unless you don’t trust the digital alternatives.

The digital alternatives

There are very few transactions that cannot be conducted electronically, and almost none that cannot be stored electronically – and even these always have an electronic equivalent – so let’s start with addressing those: a birth certificate, marriage certificate, diplomas, degrees, and a passport. The hardcopy versions of these scanned. It is a good practice to scan these as soon as they come into your hands and keep those scans as copies, not the least because these will usually be sufficient for those requiring copies. In turn those scans can be printed, and a Justice of The Peace can use a stamp and wet signature to verify that these are a true and accurate copy of the original. That certified hardcopy can in turn be scanned. Weirdly, major Australian institutions specify, and accept, scans of certified copies, without requiring the originals. Perhaps this is because the JP can be contacted and asked to verify their endorsement – and if that is the case, we can be certain that digital document authentication will soon replace printed certified copies. Both emails and text messages are quite acceptable legal documents within reasonable range of their purpose.

In around the year 2000 many countries, including Australia, US, UK and Canada enacted laws recognising e-signatures or scanned signatures. In Australia the law is pretty loose, it says that a signature needs to be `as reliable as appropriate for the purpose for which the electronic communication was generated or communicated, in the light of all the circumstances, including any relevant agreement’ (Electronic Transactions Act, 1999). If you want any more proof that you can manage without hardcopies, a man who took his own life in Queensland left an un-sent text message on his phone – which was accepted as valid by the Queensland Supreme Court in 2017 – even when contested.

If you really feel strongly about a signature, there are many electronic signature methods – Adobe claims that the e-signature facility they provide for PDF electronic documents is legally comparable to a ‘wet’ ink.

What’s going electronic

Well, damned near everything. Australia, is just one of many jurisdictions, including Florida, adopting electronic driver licences on phones – although you need to keep the plastic one safe at home. In the next year, Australian property titles will become entirely electronic. Medicare cards, store cards, ID cards and credit cards are far more secure in the form of an electronic app, with the cards left at home. Apple are working on an electronic version of a passport, and it is expected that an International Covid Vaccination certificate will be electronic and Saudi Arabia is trialing an electronic version of the International Driver licence – one of the last bastions of hardcopy paraphernalia. Birth certificates will likely go electronic, as the case for free and easy access to one’s own birth records grow – potentially available via a number of databases, including the National Perinatal Data Collection (NPDC) in Australia. Photographs of receipts, warranties and many other things are perfectly adequate for legal purposes – particularly if there is a matching transaction to verify them – but stores are increasingly offering to email you receipts – even for in-person purchases. Family snaps and artwork on your walls can be replaced by more dynamic digital alternatives. Kitchen paper and tissues – both quite un-environmental, should be replaced by washable clothes and handkerchiefs. And – the same for toilet paper – bidets remain well used in many countries, and Samsung is one of several companies offering digital toilet seats that do away with toilet paper.

The exception to support the rule

Only agreements with no clear matching transaction do not have this form of validation – for instance, a contract for the construction of a house, or a business contract. These documents are contracts even before the first penny exchanges hands, so these documents need to stand up on their own – they are printed, signed and often witnessed. In short, you usually only need a ‘wet’ signature on a document that comprises a promise or commitment that is not validated by a transaction that has occurred.

Reminders and Filing

So what’s holding you back from going paperless? Research shows that there are a couple of concerns remaining. Firstly, missing items. If you are, like most people, someone that leaves all your in-bound electronic correspondence in your in-box, you may be fearful of missing important items -and it isn’t always your fault. The digitisation of motor vehicle registration in NSW has resulted in many people not receiving registration reminders, only to be caught out by a roaming police car, which is passively and constantly scanning the number plates of other cars on the road, at the rate of six per second. Phone companies in Australia reap in vast sums from a standardised $15 penalty for non-payment of missed phone bills – and no reminders are sent – you can guess why.

The good news is that all this can be solved – firstly by improving your email management see Managing your email inbox, and by the development of a companion tool that helps you effortlessly manage your Personal information and documents – Pogglepod. Ultimately, a good electronic records management process is more environmental, more secure, more accurate, more robust, more environmental – just down-right better than a hardcopy system – see Keeping Your Personal Electronic Records Secure.

Walking out the door

All you need is a phone, and your key. All of the following items are best stored more securely on your phone:

  • Drivers licence

  • Medicare card

  • Credit cards

  • Store cards or frequent flyer cards – Stocard is an app that manages these very well

  • Student or pension card

  • Shopping list or notes app

  • Kindle mobile

What items do you need to keep in hardcopy at home

The short answer is, very few – certainly for personal purposes. Your passport, physical driver licence, physical credit card, Medicare card, store cards and original birth certificate and original certificates, diplomas and degrees should all be kept securely in a safe. Your will is best left with a solicitor. There are various documents relating to a company, superannuation fund, and business registration that are required to be in hardcopy at the moment, although those requirements are becoming overtaken by the rule of PDFs.

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