Most people don’t interact with the law on a day-to-day basis. So when you receive a letter in the mail that makes a demand, such as that you pay money or stop doing something, it can come as a shock. But we can walk you through how to respond.
What you should know
Not every legal letter comes from the courthouse. There are a few broad categories you should keep in mind:
A formal notice of claim. In this case, someone is filing a lawsuit against you in court. In BC, there are several courts. There are our traditional courts (Provincial Court and Supreme Court), but there are also specific tribunals that handle, for example, employment or tenancy matters. Either way, when you receive a notice of claim, there are timelines to how the process unfolds. At this stage the clock is ticking. You typically have only a certain number of days or weeks to respond. After that, your chances of successfully contesting the claim are low.
A letter from a government agency. This might come from, say, the Canada Revenue Agency or from your local municipality. They may be demanding that you make a payment or provide information within a certain timeline. Here, there might not be a formal claim filed yet. But that doesn’t mean you should just ignore it.
A letter from a collection agency. These often arrive when you haven’t paid a fine or you have another outstanding debt. The creditor might hire an agency to collect the fee. Again, at this point there may be no formal claim filed against you. Keep in mind that if you answer a debt collection letter about a very old debt (debts that are more than two years old are often too “old” to allow the collector to sue you), it could hurt your rights. Check out our coverage of dealing with debt to learn more.
A letter from a lawyer’s office. When people hire lawyers, a formal lawsuit is often not Plan A. Lawyers commonly help solve legal problems out of court. The process can start with a demand letter to the other side to compel them to act.
A (stern) letter from a third party. An example might be a disgruntled neighbour who’s complaining about the noisy party you had last night. In a way that suggests there’ll be consequences.
Some legal issues require you to act within a specified time period. This is most often the case with a formal notice of claim. From the date you are served the claim (that is, the date you get the letter, not the date it was written) you have a time window in which to respond. After that the claimant can request a default judgment. That’s where they win no matter what because you didn’t show up.
Here are a few timeline examples. Others might apply depending on the type of claim involved and where you’re located:
the Civil Resolution Tribunal gives you 14 days to respond (30 days if you got the notice outside of the province)
the Supreme Court of BC (for notices of civil claim) gives you 21 days to respond, with more time if you were served outside of Canada
if you get a notice of dispute resolution for a residential tenancy issue, you have to file a counterclaim no later than 14 days before the hearing.
If the legal letter you’ve received isn’t a formal notice of claim or notice of hearing, any deadlines mentioned might be more of a pressure tactic. That doesn’t mean you should ignore them altogether. A formal claim may be coming next.
If someone is trying to sue you for something that happened, say, eight years ago, they might not be able to proceed. In BC, the general limitation period for starting a claim is two years from discovering it. A claim is said to be discovered on the first day they knew, or ought to have known, a loss occurred, caused by you.
Some areas of the law have different limitation periods, though.
Here’s more on how limitation periods work.
Work out the problem
These letters can be intimidating, so it’s important to stay calm:
First, take a deep breath. You don’t have to respond this very instant.
Is it a scam? Consider whether the letter might be a scam that you can ignore.
Read it again, slowly. Think about whether the facts or allegations are accurate. Also, consider how you would present your side of the story. Perhaps jot down some notes in the margins.
Look for any deadlines. This might not be obvious in the letter, but some situations require a timely response (as mentioned above, under what you should know).
Think about whether (or not) you need help. Should you seek advice from a professional? Or even from a friend or colleague? Consider the seriousness of the issue, and the amount of time you can devote to a response. You might be willing to reach a settlement early on, or hire somebody to take care of your defense.
Sometimes, folks get legal letters that say they’ve already lost the trial. Or a letter from a collection agency might be described as a “final notice.”
But you might not have been properly served in the first place. For the clock to start on your deadline to respond, a claim has to be given to the other side in the proper way. For example, if they mail it to the wrong address or omit the unit number if you live in an apartment building, then that wouldn’t be proper service. Because you could reasonably claim you never got it.
There are all kinds of rules about service, and they vary quite a bit depending on the type of formal claim. Think about whether you may have forgotten or ignored initial formal claim letters, and google the court or tribunal you’re dealing with to learn their particular rules around service.
“This was the second letter I’d received from a neighbour in my strata demanding that I stop making noise after 10 pm. The thing is, I’m not making any noise after hours. It’s likely another unit. But now my neighbour has threatened to take me to the Civil Resolution Tribunal. I had doubts they were serious, and anyway, surely there are steps to follow before you can just take someone to court, right?”
– Maddox, Victoria, BC
You’ve read and re-read the letter, and you have a good handle on when you have to respond by. Now, it’s time to get strategic.
If you’re hiring professional help, they’ll take it from here. Once lawyers are involved, the correspondence goes between them. That doesn’t mean you can’t be involved — let your lawyer know in advance what your expectations are for a resolution and how often they should provide progress updates.
If you intend to handle this on your own, tread carefully. How you respond can have a big impact on your legal rights. If you admit something, or deny something that actually turns out to be true, that can hurt you if this goes to court. So choose your words carefully before you respond. This is where hiring a legal professional could be helpful. They write letters for a living!
If you’re planning to tackle this yourself, here are a few tips:
Ignore at your peril. It can be tempting to ignore a demand letter, especially if you think the claim is frivolous or for such a low value that you figure they’ll never go all the way to court. But recognize they still could file a claim. If that would keep you up at night, ignoring a legal letter might not be the best strategy.
Think about what medium you’re most comfortable with. It doesn’t have to be in writing. If you think the situation can be cleared up over the phone, give them a call. Or you can write a letter back asking to discuss this in person.
If it’s a formal claim, you can still try to avoid going to court. Ask the other side if they’d consider discussing a settlement before you go to trial or a hearing. You can also suggest mediation, where a third party gets involved to help find a resolution. Remember though, if the other side has a lawyer, you’ll have to deal with the lawyer directly, which can be intimidating.
Write down some notes about how you would respond. You might disagree with some of the facts. Or you might have an answer or argument to how they’re interpreting the situation. Either way, get the thoughts out of your head and onto paper.
Start to mold those initial thoughts into succinct paragraphs. Often, the less you say, the better. You don’t want to be in a situation where you offer too much information or interpretation in writing — the other side could pounce on that later on. So, keep it brief and punchy. We’ve got some tips here.
Consider a counteroffer. Just because the other side is demanding something doesn’t mean they won’t compromise. You can counter. And if you do, consider giving them a deadline to accept.
Sleep on it. So long as you’re ahead of any deadline, give your response time to simmer. Review it over a strong cup of coffee. Make sure there are no typos. And make sure you’re getting your point across clearly.
Who can help
Need a bit of legal help, but don’t have the means to hire a lawyer (or don't want to hire one)? Consider these options.
Access Pro Bono's Free Legal Advice
Volunteer lawyers provide 30 minutes of free legal advice to people with low or modest income.
Access Pro Bono’s Everyone Legal Clinic
Clinicians provide affordable fixed-fee services on a range of everyday legal problems.
UBC Law School's Student Advice Program
Law students provide help to people with limited means in the Vancouver area.