The Pitfalls of Accessing Private Emails

25 Jan

Here’s a link to a Law Times article, reviewing an interesting decision recently released by the B.C. Supreme Court, which awarded damages for improper publication of the plaintiff’s personal emails.  The parties were former spouses who were already engaged in extensive family law litigation — which sets the unfortunate and messy backdrop for the privacy-related litigation.  The defendant husband published a number of defamatory comments about his ex-wife, by way of emails and internet postings.  He included references to private email exchanges of his former spouse, and which he discovered on an old home computer.

The Court concluded that the defendant had “taken his battle with [his ex-wife] over custody and access far outside the ordinary confines of the family court litigation.”  In addition to defaming his ex-wife, the defendant was found to have breached her privacy by publishing the contents of her private emails.  As a result, he was ordered to pay damages of $40,000 for breach of privacy and defamation.

The breach of privacy aspect of the decision flows from B.C.’s Privacy Act, which creates an express statutory recourse for privacy violations.  Other jurisdictions, including Ontario, have not adopted such statutory causes of action for violation of privacy, so courts in those jurisdictions would not necessarily arrive at the same result.  However, some cases have suggested that there may be a common law tort for invasion of privacy, which could form the basis for similar claims.

The decision provides a reminder of the need to be prudent in accessing – and certainly in publishing – emails in respect of which there is a right or an expectation of privacy.

Also a good reminder of the wisdom of avoiding family law litigation!

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One Response to “The Pitfalls of Accessing Private Emails”

  1. John G January 25, 2011 at 9:53 pm #

    Three other common law provinces have Privacy Acts like that in BC.

    In the US a husband in similar circumstances was charged with a criminal offence under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. A discussion of Canadian implications appeared on Slaw.ca in December: http://www.slaw.ca/2010/12/29/is-it-a-crime-to-read-your-spouses-emails/.

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