Receiving a legal notice can be scary. Here are a few steps to help you think through the situation.
First things first
Be calm. It’s natural to get worked up when you get a legal notice, but realize that there is no pending litigation at this point. There is only a threat of being sued.
Accept Delivery of the Legal Notice
Another thing to ensure is that don’t refuse to accept the notice. Lots of times the recipient may refuse to sign, or tell a family member to convey that they’re not available to receive the notice.
This doesn’t do any good. It is a settled principle of law that refusal to accept summons or notice is deemed as valid service. The recipient will be assumed to have knowledge of the contents of the summons1/notice2.
Legal notice is only an expression of the grievances and the demands of the sender. Thus, you should contact the sender to clear any misunderstandings or if they want to settle.
If the person has sent a notice on frivolous grounds, don’t be worried. Frivolous suits and criminal cases are seen as menace by the Hon’ble Supreme Court, and courts can ordered exemplary costs for such harassment.3 4 Options to file a suit for defamation or suit for damages are also available.
Look For Legal Representation
Next, contact a lawyer. Give them a copy of the notice and all relevant documents. If you are not keen on spending for legal consultation, examine the situation and trace all events to understand why notice has been served. If you can, look for the legal provisions to ascertain whether the notice is justified or not. This will be a financially wise step as well. If you hire an advocate later, this would ease work for everyone.
Ideally, try to resolve the dispute and avoid litigation. Arrange meetings between sender of the notice and yourself and work out a solution. Litigation takes time, money and mental space. You have to take leave from work and other responsibilities (although in some circumstances court can exempt personal attendance5 6).
Always Reply To Legal Notices
Though you are not legally obligated to reply to a legal notice, it is advisable to reply. It is preferable if the reply is drafted by a lawyer.
If you don’t reply and the sender approaches court, you might have a weaker claim under law, and the court will only get to hear the opposite party’s claim in the first instance.
Give due consideration to the background circumstances, and then draft a reply. You should state your position in a polite yet firm manner. Don’t make your reply unnecessarily harsh. Rely on correct data, examine all your documents, communications and the events that have transpired, and show the flaws in the notice that has come to you. If you have a subsisting agreement, then refer to the mandatory dispute resolution clause (usually an arbitration clause) and give your reply as per the contract terms.
The tone of the reply significantly impacts the dispute, so it is better to keep your tone conciliatory. Express your intention to settle explicitly, if it doesn’t hamper your future course of action.
Pay Attention to Facts
A mistake often done by individuals while drafting by themselves, is entering data incorrectly. In the case of Mohamad Irfan v. Velukannan7, the complainant had entered an incorrect cheque number in his legal notice. The High Court laid down that such mistake in commercial activities cannot be termed as mere typographical one, and held that complainant has not fulfilled the obligation of serving a notice to the accused.
Thus, never reply in a hurry; take adequate time to examine all documents and laws relevant to the matter.
Giving a reply will help incase the matter goes to court. When the court is deciding on the facts, then having a reply to the legal notice gets the procedure fast-tracked.
Don’t Admit to Claims Unnecessarily
One thing which you must keep in mind is that do not make any admissions which goes against you later. The reply would be a relevant document if litigation is pursued later.
For example, a notice for replacement of damaged/defective goods is served upon a seller. In his reply, the seller admits that the consumer had visited the authorized service centre under his control and the defect couldn’t be rectified at that time. This statement by the seller will operate as an ‘admission’ as well as a ‘previous statement’ for purposes of The Indian Evidence Act, 1872. During litigation, if the seller makes a statement contrary to the aforementioned, the Court may be inclined towards giving a decision in favour of the plaintiff.
Further, the reply must also contain a specific and distinct denial of facts alleged in the notice in addition to a blanket denial of the whole of the notice. Any vague statement may cause misunderstanding or become an admission later.
Check the Law
Examine the settled principles of law with regards to the facts concerned. If defences are available, then mention them. But if the law is not justifying your case, then it’s best to consult an advocate.
Say, the claim for payment of money made by the sender was time-barred, or the issuer himself had breached the contract, the reply must contain such facts as defences, in addition to any other grounds suitable to the situation.
Where the reply is equipped with valid defences, it is probable that the sender of the notice actually never invokes the legal remedies he previously threatened. Inserting defences in the reply may also induce the opposite party to take a conciliatory approach instead of a hostile approach.
Look for Counter claims
Look for counter-claims and insert them to make your case stronger. If there is something which the other side has done which puts them at fault, make sure to point that out.
It is also advisable that all cards should not be opened at once. Only as much defences should be taken as are sufficient to break the confidence of the issuer of the notice. Revealing too much will allow the opposite party to know what he was unaware of previously.
If the notice seeks an immediate action, respond with a date that gives sufficient opportunity to investigate the matter. Further, the reply may also seek clarifications from the sender of the notice if the same was not understandable. Where the recipient is aware that the issuer is likely to pursue litigation, the recipient must file caveat in the Court concerned, to safeguard against ex-party orders.
Use the Right Medium to Reply to the Legal Notice
All communication should be made through a proper channel that can be tracked. Sending a reply through a Registered Post with Acknowledgment will be the most conventional way.
In the alternative, send the reply through email or WhatsApp. You can exercise all this simultaneously also.
The burden is upon the person concerned to prove that the address or email ID or mobile number mentioned, actually belongs to the person to whom the reply was addressed. Having proper records will come in handy before the Court as well.
Look for Other Ways to Resolve Disputes
There are various ways to resolve disputes at the pre-litigation stage. One is to negotiate with them, and find a solution. You can also look for a neutral third party and enter into a mediation, arbitration or lok adalats.
Recently, a writ petition had been admitted by the Hon’ble Supreme Court, seeking a standard operating procedure for pre-litigation dispute resolution.8 With respect to commercial disputes, the Parliament of India has mandated pre-institution mediation in some instances and attempts for settle, to decrease pendency before various Courts.9
Please note that the above is not to be treated as legal advice.
1 Order V Rule 9 of The Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.
2 D. Vinod Shivappa v. Nanda Belliappa, Criminal Appeal Nos. 1255-1261 of 2004, Supreme Court of India.
3 A. Shanmugam v. Ariya K.R.K.M.N.P. Sangam, Represented By Its President Etc., Civil Appeal Nos. 4012-4013 of 2012, Supreme Court of India.
4 West Bengal State Electricity Board v. Dilip Kumar Ray, Civil Appeal No. 5188 of 2006, Supreme Court of India.
5 Section 205 and 317 of The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.
6 Section 132 and 133 of The Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.
7 Criminal Appeal No. 94 of 2014, High Court of Judicature at Madras.
8 Youth Bar Association Of India & Anr v. Union Of India & Ors.,Writ Petition (Civil) No. 849 of 2020, Supreme Court of India.
9 Section 12A of The Commercial Courts Act, 2015.
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