"My therapist has informed me they don’t make notes, is this usual?", "I'd like a copy of my notes and I’m not sure how to go about this?" and "My former therapist has advised they’ve destroyed my notes, what can I do now?" are some of the many questions we’re asked about in relation to notes and record keeping.

While therapists aren’t required to keep notes by law, there’s a growing expectation to do so and it would be the responsibility of a BACP member to provide reasons for not making notes, if a complaint is submitted.

Although we recommend that notes are made, it’s up to individual practitioners to make their own decisions about this, but we do expect our members to be working ethically and complying with data protection law.

We also don’t stipulate what notes should look like, so whereas one therapist may just log the times and dates of sessions,  another may write in-depth notes. Although we do commit our members by our Ethical Framework to keep accurate and appropriate records, individual therapists will naturally have different styles and methods of note taking. How they were trained, the type of therapy they provide, who they work with and the ethics of their professional body may influence this.

So how long should counsellors keep their notes? Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to this question, and therapists or clients who seek advice may receive very different answers.

Best practice suggests that a therapist should make it clear before the start of therapy whether they make notes, how long they keep them and what happens to them. If the therapist you've contacted doesn’t mention notes you should be able to ask about this before you agree to work with them.

Usually, therapists that are employed by an organisation would be bound to follow the organisation’s policy regarding retention of records. If working privately, while they can make their own policy, they'd need to take data protection law into account and their membership body’s ethical codes. For example, our complaints procedure states that a complainant has up to three years to submit a complaint, so a member may decide to retain their notes for a minimum of three years from when the therapeutic relationship ended.

Generally, data protection law states that personal data shouldn’t be held any longer than is necessary for its original purpose. Certain types of records, e.g. NHS records, are classed as public records, with specified periods for retention. Where there’s no set time limit applied to therapeutic records, therapists and their organisation's need to decide an appropriate time limit for keeping records before destruction and should inform all their clients of this.

Clearly, therapeutic records are likely to contain sensitive personal information, so therapists have a responsibility under data protection law to ensure the security of records by using basic security measures, e.g. locked filing cabinets and the use of passwords and encryption on computer systems. On their expiry, records should be destroyed in a way that prevents anyone accessing or using them. 

Therapists in private practice are recommended to make arrangements for destroying any remaining records in a confidential manner after the therapist’s death or end of practice. This would usually be in the form of a clinical will where they've appointed an executor, usually a fellow professional or supervisor, who will take responsibility.

For additional guidance around personal data, you may wish to consider contacting the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The ICO is the organisation which administers data protection law and can help with specific enquiries and advice in this area. They'll be able to give you up-to-date guidance in relation to your specific enquiries. Refer to the ICO's website or call their helpline on 0303 123 1113. 

The confidential Get help with counselling concerns service is available Monday to Thursday, 9.30am to 4pm, by phone and email.

Call us on 01455 883300 option 2, 07811 762114, 07811 762256 or email us at gethelp@bacp.co.uk

Please note on the 2nd 3rd 9th and 10th November due to staff availability we won't be able to respond on those days.

Anything you say will be confidential and you can speak with us anonymously if you prefer. Due to the number of enquiries we receive, we do try to limit the calls to a maximum of 30 minutes, where possible.