Rupert Murdoch's News International wilfully deleted emails that could have shown its journalists' participation in phone and computer hacking, according to the words of a High Court judge yesterday as he ordered a forensic search of the company's computers.

The comments demonstrate clear lessons for companies on the importance of email retention. Data and law experts have told Computerworld UK that any company that decides to deliberately delete email or destroy computers in the face of legal proceedings likely to struggle in court.

On a day that High Court judge Mr Justice Vos turned up the heat on the newspaper group, News International agreed payouts to 37 people, including Sara Payne, the mother of murdered schoolgirl Sarah; as well as actor Jude Law and former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott. But the company said that the aggravated damages payouts do not indicate an admission of guilt.

News International also agreed compensation after admitting hacking into the email account of Christopher Shipman, son of mass murderer Dr Harold Shipman.

The company has previously told government's culture committee in carefully worded language that "technological corruptions" of its database "resulted in some data being lost", and allegedly told victims' lawyers that it ditched some computers as part of an office move in 2010.

Legal experts have said that email deletion is perfectly legal, but that it could raise troubling questions during a time of legal investigations.

"Emails are treated like any other document and there is no law around how long they should be kept," said Danvers Baillieu, a senior associate at law firm Pinsent Masons, as the allegations grew last year. But he added : "If a company senses the faintest whiff [of criminal or civil proceedings], then they have to keep the documents. Otherwise the deletion of such emails could weigh against them in the eyes of a judge or jury."

Anthony Nagle, an of Counsel lawyer at Morrison & Foerster, agreed: "If a [court] issue has arisen and you're shown to have deleted your data, you'll be asked why you did so."

Yesterday in the High Court, the judge, visibly angry, said News International had taken "a rather startling approach" to email management and data deletion, adding that there were important questions around whether it had "actively tried to get off scot-free" by destroying "a very substantial number of emails and computers of journalists".

In one instance, the company deleted emails three days after actress Sienna Miller asked for the messages to be retained for her High Court phone hacking case against it. She later reached a £100,000 settlement with the company.

A joint statement from the victims' lawyers said News Group, part of News International, had agreed to the compensation "on the basis that senior employees and directors of NGN knew about the wrongdoing and sought to conceive it by deliberately deceiving investigators and destroying evidence".

News International insisted yesterday that it had made "no admission as part of these settlements that directors or senior employees knew about the wrongdoing by NGN [News Group Newspapers] or sought to conceal it".

Photo of Rupert Murdoch: World Economic Forum