Nasty Letters From Lawyers

How do you respond?

Have you ever received a letter of demand from a lawyer? It may just be that the letter itself was a nasty surprise, rather than the content. You might have received a demand, or a warning, or a request for information.

Lawyers write letters like this to each other on behalf of their client all of the time. Occasionally, as a lawyer you get a letter that is a really nasty surprise. Something unexpected, that you think has potentially dire consequences if you don’t get the response right. I had a colleague who used to call those kind of letters the “oh sh!t” letters, and the habit stuck. I know that for a lot of people, any letter from a lawyer would be an “oh sh!t” letter.

So what do you do?

Dont PanicFirstly, don’t panic! Famous words immortalised on the cover of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy… but we digress…

Now, once you get over the panic, you then have the chance to work out what the letter is really about. I was asked to comment on a legal letter just this week. The letter was from a work injuries regulator to a health service provider – who did panic.

Reading the letter through, it was simply a request for a response to a complaint received from the person who was being treated. The regulator was not making any accusations (which is what the health care provider thought the letter was about) and was not asking for justification. It was simply a request for comment. Now, without more context, the health provider could simply comment that the complaint of the worker was untrue, and the health care provider stood by their report. Right now we are waiting to find out if anything more is actually expected.

So you see, in that example, there really was not a lot to get concerned about. The lesson is to read the letter carefully and make sure you understand both the content, and the context, before even considering a response.

Make sure you understand the content and the context.

Lawyers will often put timeframes for a response just to keep things moving for their clients. Not every end date is a ‘drop dead’ date. There are legal time frames that you do need to comply with promptly – particularly in court matters. If you do get a court notice or letter about a court matter, then the dates that you need to respond by should be very clearly set out.  

If you get a letter that needs a response within a timeframe set out in legislation, then that law should be referred to, usually with a reference to the section of the law that applies. If no law is referred to, then the time limit might just be set by the lawyer. Don’t be afraid to ask!

Find out whether your timeframe for a response has been set by the lawyer, or is according to a law.

It is rare that a timeframe cannot be extended. If you need more time to put together a response that you are happy with, then ask for it!

What lawyers do when it is clear that the timeframe has been set by the other lawyer and not by law, is to go back and say “I will respond once I have recieved instructions from my client” without agreeing to the original timeframe.

The next thing to do is check the facts. If there are accusations in the letter, are they true? I’ve seen a number of letters this year written to people accusing them of breach of trademark and demanding that the person receiving the letter immediately stop using the trademark and hand over materials etc.

After checking the trademark register, I don’t think any of the claims were true. Each was close, but none of the recipients were using a trademark that they were alleged to have misused.

Check your facts.

And lastly, get help! A lot of people are worried about spending money and think they can handle things without having to get a lawyer involved. Sometimes that is true. At other times spending the money to get early advice, particularly strategic legal advice, can save you heaps in the long run.

Get help.

Think about the worst case scenario, the time, the cost and the stress involved in running a dispute for two years, against spending some money upfront to help you develop a strategy to resolve your matter in a couple of months instead. It really is worth it.

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10 Responses to “Nasty Letters From Lawyers”

  1. joshua October 29, 2014 at 8:16 am #

    I received a letter from a lawyer that is defending my insurance company (also me because i was insured be the insurance company) asking for some information

    This is the 3rd letter in under a year. This one says in bold letter that if I failed to cooperate it could result in denial of coverage and personal exposure to any judgment against me.

    It has been a little over 4 years. I don’t know what to do. Should I respond or I shouldn’t and what happens after this..

    Please help and thank you

  2. Kristin June 17, 2014 at 12:27 am #

    I too have received a nasty letter from a solicitor demanding money from a customer of mine for goods not delivered. I replied to him with the proof the good were awaiting collection and she was ignoring my requests to collect them.
    Her solicitor is not returning my emails, after my initial email I sent another enquiring as to his response as he did not respond to the first I then sent a fax copy of the emails stating incase he did not receive my emails, which I also got no reply too. I have now been served papers to appear in court over the matter.
    Is it ok that the solicitor did not reply to any of my replies? Is he obligated to reply and sort the matter prior to taking court action?

    • Jeanette Jifkins June 17, 2014 at 6:06 am #

      Hi Kirstin,
      You can use the evidence of your letters and proof of availability for collection to demonstrate to the court that you have done everything you could to fulfil your end of the deal. This type of defence is called ‘estoppel’. The other party may be stopped from saying you have done something wrong due to their own failure to respond to you.

      Lawyers have obligations to uphold the law, to the Courts, to the profession and to clients. Failure to resolve this matter early so that it is now in court is a potential breach of the lawyer’s duty to the Court. There is a Legal Services Board for each state that hears complaints about the conduct of lawyers. You may wish to contact them.

  3. Ed May 17, 2014 at 6:19 am #

    I too have received a letter from an attorney in another state, demanding money on behalf of my former partner with a deadline date to pay or a lawsuit will take place. His letter accompanies copies of checks written to me from my former partner. These checks are for repayment of debts he accumulated during our time together but he is alleging that I took this money from him. NOT TRUE.

    My questions are as follows:

    If I ignore this demand, can they hunt me down? Will I go to jail for not responding?

    My former partner has taken facts and turned them in to lies to get money from me.

    The reason for our breakup was revealed to me 1 year after my partner contracted HIV and numerous STD’s while cheating on us. Isn’t this illegal? He jeopardized my health and life by not telling me and I am now under VA testing to see if I come down with any of these ailments.

    • Jeanette Jifkins May 17, 2014 at 4:36 pm #

      Where there is a dispute over whether or not money is due, then that dispute has to be resolved before there can be any enforcement action. So, although you have received threats, all you need to do is respond and say the checks represented repayment of monies owed to you – in writing. Then the dispute has to be resolved before they can chase you for payment. Be warned, if it is a substantial amount of money this may mean a court action is started to work out who has the true claim.

      Reckless endangerment (sexual relations without disclosure of the risk of AIDS) can be a crime in some jurisdictions. You need to seek local advice.

  4. Wayne February 10, 2014 at 11:37 pm #

    We also have received a letter from a lawyer asking for information relating to a defamation case his client is defending against another party. We know both parties. Are we obliged to provide a response?

    • Administrator February 11, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

      Hi Wayne,
      You are not obliged to respond unless you receive a subpoena to give evidence. A subpoena is a document issued by the court and not simply a legal letter.

    • Jeanette Jifkins May 17, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

      There is no property in witnesses – which means that either side in a dispute can ask for your help. You cannot be compelled to assist either party without a court order.

  5. John James April 17, 2013 at 6:50 am #

    I have just read your article after receiving a letter very similar to the ones referred to at the end of this article RE trademark. In my case it was a former partner pursuring me and it was a ‘oh ffs’ letter! I just wanted to let you know I found this very useful in my situation, and thank you for taking the time to share this information.

    • Administrator February 11, 2014 at 6:52 pm #

      Thank you for your comment John. Glad to help!

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