I’m Kate Dewhirst.

I’m a lawyer who writes about legal issues affecting healthcare in Canada

Kate Dewhirst Health Law - bringing the law to life. Meet Kate (in 13 seconds)

Always scroll down

Posted by

The Forward Email function should be used very carefully. Here’s why …

As a lawyer, I get forwarded a lot of emails by my clients.  In those emails there are often long threads of internal email conversations within the team where they realize there is a legal question and I get retained to advise on an issue.

Most of the time, it is helpful for me to receive those internal email conversations. They can give me the history, the context, different people’s views and contributions to the discussion.

BUT it should not be regular practice to forward emails or add new people to email threads without extra care and caution.  Forwarding emails is dangerous!  Okay – that’s an exaggeration.  But let me tell you what can happen when you over use the Forward Email function.

Problem 1: Wrong people learn of information

At least four times a year, I read an email and think to myself, Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooh – the person who wrote this email (or part of an email) did not intend everyone on this email list to be privy to their views.

It goes like this:

(1) The email starts with a few participants. The content is appropriate to that group.

(2) Somewhere along the email thread, someone gets candid or expressly critical of others.

(3) The next part of the thread initiates setting up meetings.

(4) New people are added to the thread who will need to come to the meeting but to discuss a completely different issue.

Now all the participants in the meeting are privy to an email thread that include’s someone’s vulnerable expressions of risk, concern, venting or critique to trusted colleagues.

Tip: Before you forward any email – or add any new person to the email thread – scroll down and read what is in whole email thread. Assess whether a new email needs to be started. NEVER add someone new to an email thread where there has been a trusted confidential dialogue. 

Problem 2: You lose legal privilege

Sometimes, I get forwarded an email chain that includes legal advice that came from another lawyer who is acting for another side involved in a dispute with my client.  When that happens I cringe.

I cringe because I know the lawyer who wrote that email to their client, did not intend for me to receive it.  Sometimes the comments are benign.  But sometimes that email contains information about why the other side is not agreeing to certain provisions or explains their fears and concerns.  In any event, it is content I should not receive.

I cringe because I know from time to time, my clients do the same thing and another lawyer at another desk is reading the confidential, privileged legal advice I sent to my client. I know there have been times when my clients inadvertently forward my email to the other side as part of a long email thread or do so intentionally as short hand to say “these are my lawyers’ concerns”.

Tip:  Never forward your legal advice to the other side.  You can lose the legal privilege you have over legal advice. 

What’s legal privilege?

The solicitor-client privilege that attaches to emails with your lawyer protects all communications your team and your lawyer from being disclosed without your permission. The privilege belongs to the client and not the lawyer. 

It may not seem important in the moment – however, when you “waive privilege” it is possible that the emails with your lawyer become disclosed against you in litigation or become accessible in freedom of information requests. You won’t necessarily appreciate the importance of the legal privilege until you no longer have it.  It is good practice not to be in the habit of forwarding your lawyers’ email messages.

Problem 3:  You become exposed to patient privacy breaches

In a long email thread, especially one dealing with a patient incident or issue, somewhere sometime an otherwise anonymous patient becomes inadvertently identifiable.  As different people are invited into an email thread, they add new content and use different ways of communicating about a patient.  The email starts with vague details – someone is added and starts using initials – someone is added who uses a first name – someone is added who uses a medical record number (MRN) – someone is added who attaches a document with the patient’s complaint and signature.  Long email threads about patient incidents almost always result in identifiable information being shared inadvertently – which then exposes you to privacy breach risk.

Tip: Be very careful about sharing patient incident information by email.  Do not attach identifiable patient complaint documentation to otherwise anonymized email threads. 

My number one tip when sending emails is – scroll down.  Before you forward anything, scroll down and see if the total content of that email message should be forwarded on. Most of the time it should not.  Delete the parts that should not be included or better yet, start a new message if you are adding new people to the mix.

If you enjoyed this article please share it:

Previous and next posts from Kate:

Some of Kate’s recent and upcoming events

Primary care webinars: Employment Law Update & Legal Issues for EDs and Board members

Part of Kate’s monthly webinar series.

Our January program will address an employment law update for health leaders.
Full details of the 2021 webinar series and registration here.

Free healthcare privacy webinar - ask me anything!
the first Wednesday of every month

Free webinars - advance registration needed

Whether you're an experienced privacy officer or new in the field, pick Kate’s brain for free for an hour, in this live webinar. No charge, but you’ll need to register in advance.

Health Privacy Officer training
April 12, 19, 26, May 3, 10, 17, 24 2021

For Privacy Officers within healthcare organizations.

This course focuses on how to become a more confident privacy officer and gives you the tools to document your privacy program. Full details and registration here...

Osgoode Privacy and Information Management Course
Jan 18, 25, Feb 1, 8, 16,

Advanced privacy learning opportunity for lawyers, privacy officers and health leaders

Learn more about Canadian health privacy and information management More Details...

Advanced Health Privacy Officer training
June 2021

For Privacy Officers within healthcare organizations - now totally online

This course focuses on taking theory into practice and we do real life scenarios to build your Privacy Officer skills.
Full details and registration here.

Team Privacy Training Events
January 7, 8, 13, 26, 27, 29

For Primary Care clinics, Hospitals, Community Agencies, Schools, Police departments

Kate trains health professionals from many more health care organizations how being privacy-respectful can improve therapeutic relationships. More details...

Part X CYFSA Privacy Designate Course

For Privacy Designates in the child welfare sector including children's aid societies and indigenous children's well-being centres

We focus on how to implement Part X of the Child Youth and Family Services Act in your organization.
Full details and registration here.

Kate Dewhirst Health Law

Kate says:

My mission is bringing the law to life. I make legal theory understandable, accessible and fun! I’m available and love to work for all organizations in the healthcare sector across Ontario and beyond.

Subscribe to my mailing list and keep up to date with news:

Latest Tweets

[FEB 4 – WEBINAR SERIES] Ontario Health Teams - What primary care should be thinking about when working with commun… https://t.co/MYsceypT8r

02:01 PM Jan 15th

It’s that time of year again … annual statistical reporting to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.… https://t.co/qJIZCmDdWw

05:49 PM Jan 14th

[APR 12] More than 100 people took this training with me last year and in total I've trained Privacy Officers from… https://t.co/C6IdNhcBEG

02:01 PM Jan 14th

contact details

P.O. Box 97010 Roncesvalles
Toronto Ontario M6R 3B3

(416) 855 9557