Family Lore Clinic: Can solicitors send threatening letters?

Here's an interesting query that found its way to this blog recently: Can solicitors send threatening letters?

On the face of it, it's a simple question, to which I'm sure most people would answer something like: "Yes, of course they can - and often do!" After all, solicitors are always writing to people threatening them with court proceedings if they do or do not do a certain thing. And that includes family lawyers, although I would hope that in doing so they do not use aggressive language (more of which in a moment).

But there is a more serious point here, depending upon how you interpret the word 'threatening', and how the recipient of the letter may respond to it. What if the solicitor 'oversteps the mark' as to the 'threat' they make? And what if the letter causes the recipient extreme (and foreseeable) distress?

The Solicitors Regulation Authority ('SRA') requires solicitors to adhere to certain principles, including that they should act in a way that upholds public trust and confidence in the solicitors' profession. This requirement could be breached by writing an offensive communication. The SRA set out a list of aggravating factors here that may make a communication offensive, including using threatening or abusive language, or causing significant harm, distress or offence to the recipient.

If you believe a solicitor has breached the principle, you can report them to the SRA.

Further to this, many family lawyers are members of Resolution, and as such they should comply with Resolution's Good Practice Guide to Correspondence, which you can find here, and also a Good Practice Guide to working with litigants in person, which is here. The latter makes clear that in communications with litigants in person "Threats or ultimatums should be avoided."

If you have received a threatening letter from a solicitor it should indicate on the letterhead whether they are a member of Resolution. If they are, and if you believe the letter does not comply with Resolution guidance, you can make a complaint to Resolution here.

The longer answer to the question, therefore, is: Yes, solicitors can write threatening letters, but that does not mean that there is no limit upon what the letters may contain.