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Can anybody enlighten me about how long the documents of a judicial trial are stored in the court (or in archives) and are available for studying in the countries of the West, say in France, in Britain, in Germany, in USA?

I am asking because in Russia, where I live, people face problems in getting acquaintance with the documents of the court after certain period: all the documents, but the verdict of the judge, are annihilated in several years. I am curious how this problem is resolved in the West.

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    It can last a long time. I've done archival research using depositions from a case in 1818-1819. – cpast Feb 7 '18 at 2:07
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    Also worth noting that some records that would be kept in the court system in some places would be kept elsewhere in other systems. Most of what would be probate court records in the U.S. are kept by notaries in continental Europe. Divorce records in France are kept in the office of the clerk for the place you were born, not with a court. The U.S. keeps records of money judgment liens in the real property record clerk's office, rather than a court, etc. Sometimes exhibits from trials are kept by attorneys in the case rather than the court. Police often store evidence in criminal cases. – ohwilleke Apr 25 '18 at 20:19
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    In addition, in Britain and the USA (and countries that derive law from them) the courts operate under the Common Law system. A core tenate of the system is that two cases with similar circumstances must result in similar decisions, with the first case that providing the rule. There are several common law Jurisdictions that did not have statutory laws against murder because case law covered enough ground that it wasn't required. Decisions are usually kept for sometime to compare cases and the various factors regarding the decision. – hszmv Apr 26 '18 at 18:51
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I'm not sure if you are asking for each of the countries listed, but I am assuming that they are there merely for example.

In the US, the are a variety of different rules for its different court systems. As a rule, each State can make its own rules for its court system, and the overarching Federal system has its own rules as well, although they run off of the same principles. As such, the answer varies on which state the court is located in and possibly the type of document.

In California, for example, different documents have different retention times for different documents. For example, documents for civil cases default to 10 years of retention, while adoption paperwork is retained permanently. For a criminal matter, the judgement (the final product that says if the accused is found guilty or innocent, and for what crimes) is retained permanently, while all other documents are retained for the greater of 50 years or the maximum length of sentence imposed.

When the retention period for a document is over, the document is not automatically destroyed(at least in California). Instead, the appropriate official sends an official notice to all the parties in the case that the document is to be destroyed, and if no response is received to transfer the documents, the documents can be destroyed. (Source:http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=GOV&sectionNum=68152)

Note: I have said "document" throughout, which originally meant a piece of paper. However, recently, documents have been submitted electronically, and sometimes older documents are electronically scanned.

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  • Thank you very much, that's very interesting! Will it be reasonable to think that the rules in the other states are more or less the same (i.e. do not vary much)? At least in serious situations like a guilty verdict in a criminal case? – Sergei Akbarov Feb 6 '18 at 17:47
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    @SergeiAkbarov: The numbers are likely to change (i.e. 10 years might be 5 years or 15 years, 50 years may be 25 years, etc) but the general pattern is likely to be more or less the same. For a guilty verdict, then I am confident that the judgement (and almost certainly the whole case) will be preserved for at least the length of the sentence, and beyond. I know for a fact that trial records have been reviewed decades after a case has been decided in an appeal. – sharur Feb 6 '18 at 17:54
  • Hm... 5 years - this sounds a bit strange... Is this possible in a criminal case? – Sergei Akbarov Feb 6 '18 at 18:04
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    Sorry, Sergei, you misunderstood me. When I said 5 years in place of 10 years, I meant things that might be stored for 10 years in California (such as the example of a civil case document), may be kept for a shorter or longer period in a different state. Criminal court records would always be kept for at least the duration of the sentence, if not longer, to allow for appeals. – sharur Feb 6 '18 at 18:09
  • Sharur, if a person is centenced to a fine (not to a prison) in a criminal court, how long will the documents be stored? – Sergei Akbarov Feb 6 '18 at 18:25
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In Germany, this is regulated by the individual states (Länder), since the court system is (mostly) organized by the Länder. However, there are some common regulations, for example the Bestimmungen über die Aufbewahrungsfristen für das Schriftgut der ordentlichen Gerichtsbarkeit, der Staatsanwaltschaften und der Justizvollzugsbehörden (Regulations on the retention periods for documents of courts, prosecution and correctional institutions).

An overview:

  • Documents about proceedings in civil courts are retained for 5 to 70 years, depending on their nature. In particular, court decisions / judgements must be kept for at least 30 years.
  • Criminal or administrative judgements must be kept for 30 years.
  • If an accused receives a life sentence, court documents must be retained until the accused would have been 100 years old.
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  • Excuse me, do your words mean that only the decisions of the judge are stored for long? What about other documents, like petitions of the participants of the process, medical assessments, evidences of witnesses? Are they destroyed quickly? – Sergei Akbarov Apr 25 '18 at 10:27
  • @SergeiAkbarov: That's covered by the "5 to 70 years" :-). Sorry, you'll have to read the rules yourself, I'm no expert on this either. – sleske Apr 25 '18 at 11:49
  • Excuse me, the problem is that I don't speak German. English or French are ok. Actually, "5 to 70 years" is a bit vague. If a person is sentenced to a punishment in a criminal court, are there more precise rules for this? – Sergei Akbarov Apr 25 '18 at 12:24

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