There can hardly be a family lawyer in the land who has not shivered with horror at the news that one of their letters of client advice, containing deeply personal and confidential information, has fallen into the hands of their client’s other half. How could this have happened? And what could have been done to prevent it happening in the first place? I suspect that nowadays, it is more likely to be an email that has been compromised rather than a letter.
Adios snail mail
It is often the case that advice will be sought whilst a client is still living with their spouse or partner in the same property. A problem arises when the solicitor wishes to confirm the advice given in writing. In the days when snail mail was the only option, it was often agreed that the post would be sent to a trusted third party rather than to the client’s home address. The use of e-mail, which has the benefit of speed, is often requested by clients still sharing a property with the person from whom they wish to separate. Even if the parties have separated, it may be the case that the departed spouse comes back from time to time to pick up post, or possessions. These visits may occur when the occupying spouse is absent. It strikes me that sending an e-mail to a client’s email account, which will be accessed from a shared computer in the matrimonial home is as dangerous as sending a hardcopy letter to the home bearing the legend “DEEPLY PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL LEGAL ADVICE FROM YOUR DIVORCE SOLICITOR”. In fact, it is probably easier for a client’s partner to stumble across and read a confidential e-mail from a lawyer (and then then hit “Mark as unread”) than it is to steam open a hardcopy letter before glueing the envelope back down.
Clouds in my coffee
It is imperative in most family law situations, (the possible exception being the collaborative law model) that communications between solicitors and clients are kept private. Confidentiality is key. How can a client discuss matters of importance with candour and expect equally candid advice if such communications are likely to be intercepted and compromised? So, what can you do to retain the benefits of electronic communication whilst maximising its security and confidentiality?
Try these tips:
- If you want to receive email communication to your home on a shared computer then consider setting up your own user account that you log into and out of when the computer is on. This will require a password. This is relatively secure but may be overridden if you are not the person who set up the computer in the first place – often known as the Administrator.
- Go a step further and open an email account with a hosted e-mail provider (in what is colloquially called The Cloud). GMail is just one example. Set your username, password, and security questions, and do not reveal them to anybody else. Do not leave these details written down. If you absolutely must keep a record of the account information for fear of forgetting the passwords, then consider retaining the information on your smart phone, if you have one, but heed the next tip.
- Ensure that you have a pin code on your smart phone, laptop or tablet to prevent your spouse or partner accessing these details when you are not around.
- You can then give this hosted e-mail account to your solicitor. The e-mail communications will not appear on your home PC provided you have not set up a forwarding facility on to a conventional e-mail account that can be accessed at home.
- When setting up a hosted email account you will often have to provide a pre-existing email address. This is likely to be your email account in the shared home. A validation email will be sent from the hosted account to your existing email account as part of the set – up process. Once this has arrived, deal with any action required but then immediately delete the welcoming email it (and then delete again from the trash folder). This will prevent your partner being aware that you have an additional email account.
- Such cloud services offer more than just email. If your solicitor has sent you draft letters or settlement options for consideration, you can retain them in the cloud, amend them and then send back to your solicitor. You need not ever print off a document that could be inadvertently read by your partner. You can therefore have a complete set of correspondence from your solicitor which you will retain online rather than having a printed file of documentation which could fall into the wrong hands. As an alternative to the online storage solutions offered by Google, you could consider opening a Dropbox account which, to my personal taste, is a more elegant and functional solution than Google Docs.
- Before you login to your hosted e-mail account, see if you can select “Private Browsing” in your Internet browser. This prevents a record of your browsing history (including your visits to a hosted email account) being created on your home PC. Alternatively, when you log out of a browsing session, you can delete the browsing history. This would prevent a suspicious partner from looking at the recently browsed or accessed webpages and deducing that you have a private e-mail account even if they cannot access it.
The phenomenal growth in the smart phone market, now complemented by the astonishing popularity of the Apple iPad and Apple’s competitors rushing to also grab a slice of the tablet market, has freed us from the shackles of a desk-bound computer. We can access emails and documents from just about anywhere on a number of electronic devices. Family lawyers must be more flexible about the ways in which they balance their clients’ demands to be kept informed with their competing right to confidentiality.