Filing and Court Record Retention

Record Keeping

A ‘Court of Record’ is a court that maintains records of court cases and records or documents hearings. Record keeping is important to keep the court consistent, to allow a review for appeals if one is filed, and for future reference for a variety of reasons. Record keeping is a key activity of tribal court clerk duties. Clerks must learn the filing system, both digital and hard copy files, that the tribal court uses and maintain that system in an organized and orderly fashion for the smooth and efficient functioning of the court. If the court is new, the clerk will likely be the person to set up a filing system.

The case load of Alaska tribal courts are generally small and there is no need for the tribes to invest large amounts of money on fancy court management programs for record keeping. Programs that generally come with office computers are adequate to do the job, and simple recorders or hand written notes can be used for recording hearings. Programs such as Access can generate reports and keep updated case information; Excel, or a similar program, works well for keeping track of court finances and monetary transactions; Word or similar programs can be used for creating forms, letters, and other documents.

Tribal court records include paper copies, computer hard drives, disks or jump drives, microfilm, scanned or digitalized copies, magnetic and visual media and other such electronic communications. All forms of records must be kept secure, behind at least two locks, so that unauthorized persons cannot access them. They must also be kept secure from destruction such as from fire, flooding, water damage, theft, and unauthorized tampering or destruction. The court needs written policies as to who has access to tribal court records, length of retention, and procedures for destruction of files.


Filing is a system of placing documents in an orderly fashion so that they can be found easily. Filing systems can widely differ, and depend on the complexity of the court system and physical and electronic needs for that particular court. New clerks must become familiar with a court’s filing system, and continue with that system for a good length of time before doing any major overhaul. It takes time to assess the validity and organizational health of a filing system.

The term ‘filing’ has two different meanings in a court system. Filing can refer to the system of placing documents in specific folders, and it can also refer to someone bringing a document to the court to be part of the official record, as in “filing a document with the court.” The clerk should have a stamp that shows the date that something such as a Petition has been filed with the court. The person filing the document is given a copy of the document after having it stamped “filed” with the court. All documents presented to the court for filing should be accepted unless otherwise indicated in court rules or tribal codes. Just because a person has filed a Petition to Use the Tribal Court, does not mean that the Court is going to hear the case. Judges have to meet to discuss whether or not to hear a case and if they decide to, that is the point at which a case ‘begins.’ However, the Clerk should accept all documents and stamp them filed. If there is a question as to whether a document should be accepted, clerks should accept the document and have tribal court judges review it to make a final determination as to whether it is to be accepted by the court or considered in the case.

Setting up Case files

Each case should have its own file. It is best to use files with metal fasteners and one or two middle sections. Metal fasteners are important so the documents stay in order and in place, making them easy to find and hard to lose. Multiple sections are helpful for dividing the documents by type. Case notes should be separate from other documents, court orders in their own section, and a section for correspondence to the parties such as Notices or letters. It is best to have another section for correspondence and other documents that parties submit to the court. Newer documents are added to the top of the appropriate section of the file so that the most current documents are found on top.

Each case file should contain an information sheet with contact information for all parties, including full names, physical and mailing addresses, any personal phone numbers, work addresses and phone numbers, and any other contact information, such as information on relatives or foster parents. If the parties have an attorney involved in the case, that information should also be on the information sheet. The information sheet should be kept current, and parties should be notified that they are responsible for informing the court of any changes. The information sheet should be in a handy spot in the file so that it can be utilized and updated easily.

A docket sheet, or an inventory sheet of what is placed in the file, should be part of each case file. Whenever a document for a case file comes into the clerk’s office, it should be filed right away and noted on the docket sheet. This practice allows anyone reviewing the file to see at a glance what the file contains, or should contain. Individual documents should not be removed from a file for any purpose except momentarily for copying, but if one is removed it should be noted on the docket sheet by date and who removed the document. When the document is returned to the file, the docket sheet should be updated to reflect the return of the document.

Setting up a filing system

Case files may be organized by case name or by a case number, and by type of case. For example, the files could be organized under the subjects the court handles such as child protection, juvenile delinquency, or law and order.

A common method for a case numbering system is to use the year that the case was first accepted into the court, followed by the number of cases filed that year. For example, 2012 – 4 would indicate that it is the 4th case accepted in 2012. Another option is to use the date the case was accepted, such as 2012-08-5 (August 5, 2012). If more than one case was accepted on that date, the number could be 2012-08-5 (1).

Case numbers may be accompanied by the letters to indicate the type of case. For example, CP may refer to Child Protection, so the case may begin “CP2012-08-5 (Child Protection case beginning on August 5, 2012). Juvenile Delinquency cases may be marked with ‘J’, or a law and order case marked with ‘LO’. Some courts use color coding to distinguish between different types of cases such as blue for child protection, red for juvenile delinquency.

Electronic files need to be managed in a filing system with case number and/or name on the file, and all documents that are electronic or scanned should be stored in that file. Access to case files should be more secure than other computer files. Only a very limited number of people should have access to the electronic files. A backup disk, external hard drive, or memory stick may be used to protect files from loss or computer crashes, but they must be secured in a locked drawer that has the same limited access.

Audio Recordings

Many tribal courts record hearings on audio tapes or disks to preserve an exact audio recording of the proceedings. These tapes need to be filed in a way that they could easily be found, placing labeled tape or disk, in a labeled plastic case, and filed in chronological order. Audio files must secure just as paper and electronic files are. It is best to keep them in a lockable, cool, dry place. Locked fire and water proof cabinets are the best.

Audio tapes need to be labeled as they are being used, with case number. If more than one case is on the tape, make a note of the number and starting point for each new hearing on the tape. Use a tape recorder or other recording devise that has a numbering system on it. Keep a log of the events during the hearing to produce a ‘map’ of each hearing. The log might look something like this:

Recording Counter    Speaker   Proceeding
 000- :45  Presiding Judge  Opening hearing
 :45 – 1:30  Clerk  Confirming notification of parties
 1:30 – 15:00   Petitioner  States her case to the court
 15:00 – 22:00  Respondent  States his case to the court
 22:00 – 25:00   Witness  Describes what they saw in the case
 25:00   -  Off record for judges to deliberate
 25:00  Presiding Judge  Gives decision of the judges

Court Seals and Certification Stamps

Court seals and certification stamps are essential tools for the tribal court. The court seal proves that a document is an official document of the court. A certification stamp authenticated that a copy is an exact copy of the original. Court seals and certification stamps can be bought at printing companies or office supply stores such as Office Max.

It is best to use a court seal that uses ink rather than an embossing stamp. An embossing stamp leaves a raised pattern rather than marking with ink. It is much easier to make copies of documents that have ink stamps as opposed to embossing. To make a certified copy of an original document, make a copy of the original document in a copy machine and stamp it with the certification stamp. Sign and date the stamped area.

When ordering a court seal, use the name of the court as it appears in the tribal codes or constitution. This is also the name of the court as it appears in the heading of tribal court orders. Other useful information to have on the court seal is the name of the village, zip code, or full address of the tribal court. Artwork adds to the cost and time it takes to have a court seal made, but it can be a very meaningful addition.

A certification stamp proves that a document is an exact replica of the original. The stamp should be in red ink so that it is obvious that it is not part of the original document. Self-inking stamps last a fairly long time and are easy to use. The wording for the stamp could be something like:

I certify that this is a true and correct photo-copy of the original or a Certified Copy of this document.

(Tribe’s Name) Tribal Court Clerk





Records Retention and Destruction:

The term ‘records’ generally includes hard paper copies, computer disks or jump drives, microfilm, scanned or digitalized copies, magnetic and visual media, and any other such electronic communications. Each tribe must decide how long to keep various records and what records they will retain indefinitely. The tribal council may have a policy or ordinance that describes record retention and disposal of records in general or there may be a specific policy for tribal court records. The tribal court clerk must follow any records retention and destruction policy the tribe has. If the tribe does not have one, the clerk should seek expertise in developing one for review by the tribal council or tribal court, whichever body is most appropriate for adopting such a policy.

Generally tribes have a policy of keeping some types of tribal court records indefinitely, including probate, settlements, adoptions, guardianships, protective orders, marriages and divorces. Child custody, juvenile delinquency, and child protection records should be kept at least until the child reaches the age of 18, but may be retained longer. The length of time to keep records from law and order infractions such as traffic violations or public intoxication is entirely up to the tribe. The records retention policy should also cover who has access to records and procedures to follow.

Once it is determined that certain records are to be destroyed under the retention and destruction policy, there needs to be a procedure for doing so by specifically designated tribal staff. The time lines and options for disposal should be clear, such as using a burn barrel, paper shredder, or electronic file deletion.