Is it acceptable for a lawyer acting for a client to send a very private communication to a work email address of the other party?
A complaint based on exactly this kind of scenario was made to the Legal Complaints Review Officer (LCRO) who provides independent oversight and review of the decisions made by the standards committees of the Law Society and the Society of Conveyancers.
In the complaint BO v DE from September last year, a lawyer acting for a man in a relationship property matter emailed a letter to the man’s ex-wife at her work address. The lawyer had been given the address by his client, the former husband.
According to the LCRO’s decision, the woman was furious at receiving “an intensely personal, embarrassing and defamatory” email at her work address. Through her lawyer, she demanded an apology from her ex-husband’s lawyer and she vigorously denied suggestions in the letter about alcohol abuse and gambling. The woman said the email and attachment had become the property of her employer, and others in her workplace might have access to it.
But a complaint to the standards committee concluded that the lawyer’s actions did not raise any professional standards issues and it took no further action. The woman then sought a review of the decision and an acknowledgement that the lawyer had behaved unprofessionally. She also sought compensation.
In reviewing the case, the LCRO, Haneke Bouchier, said there was a risk that others might have access to email addresses in a workplace. The fact that this did not appear to have occurred here did not detract from concern about the risk.
“This issue is important. In this technological age, email is a common and accepted method of exchanging correspondence. At the same time, there are clear risks that through this process, highly personal information might be accessible to persons who should not be privy to it.”
Ms Bouchier declined to make a disciplinary finding because she said it was not appropriate for her to make an example of the lawyer when the topic needed more discussion by the Law Society and its members. Emails had “incrementally and perhaps surreptitiously” become such a common means of communication and this could have resulted in the risks being overlooked in this case.
“The internet has opened new avenues for communication, and with it new difficulties and risks arise. How the risks are to be calculated is not always obvious, but lawyers would do well to consider the possibility that an emailed letter containing highly personal information might fall into the wrong hands if emailed to the workplace of the addressee.”
The Law Society is now preparing a guide for lawyers on how to manage emails and will make it available on its website. It could also serve as a useful guide to other professionals who use emails as a main communications tool.