3 Ways To Verify That Your Emailed Legal Letter Has Been Delivered And Received

If you're sending (or receiving) legal correspondence via email, then it's vital that you're aware of the three main ways that delivery and receipt of an emailed legal letter can be verified.

It's increasingly commonplace nowadays for official legal correspondence to be sent via email (as opposed to postal mail or hand-delivery, for example). So, it's vital that you're aware of the three main ways that delivery and receipt of an emailed legal letter can be verified.

1) Meta-Data

The first way highlights the technological advantages of email as a medium for delivering legal correspondence.

An email message consists of some combination of text, images, or other attached files. We can refer collectively to these components as data. Mechanically speaking, what it means to send an email message then is to transfer data from one server to another (or, it could be transferring data from one location in a given server to a different location on the same server, in the event that that the sender and recipient of a given email message share the same server).

Such a transfer makes it possible for the sending server to know when a given component in the email message is being downloaded by the receiving server (the download function is the action that takes place when a transfer that entails retrieving some asset from the sending server is occurring).

The important thing about email as a medium, then, is that sending and receiving servers can, and do, talk to each other; and this makes it possible for data about the data to be sent in response by the receiving server to sending server. In computer-speak, we call this data about the data "meta-data."

Here is a common example. Images contained in a given email message live on the sending server. When that email message is sent, the recipient receives a message that contains computer-code reference to that image's location on the sending server. When the recipient opens that message and it loads (i.e. the image contained in that email message is rendered and displayed), the sending server registers the "download event." In most cases, in fact, each new open of that same email message will register a new "download event" on the sending server.

Now, here's the secret sauce of this capability. Sometimes, a sender needs to, and does, actually include some image in the email message, and that "feeds" this capability without any extra effort. But what about all of those email messages that contain no images? How do those messages "feed" this capability? The answer is: hidden images. Many email messages contain white, 1-pixel-by-1-pixel images put there exclusively for the purpose of registering "view events." Because the images are so small, and because they also tend to be the same color as the background of an email message, most recipients would have no way to detect these images unless they were using some software that did the detection for them (which, by the way, does exist).

Capitalizing on this technical capability, some email software clients include a feature that shows the sender each time a "download event" occurs, because it implicitly represents a "view event," provided that nothing interferes with the rendering and display of the image on the recipient's end. This data about the email message is considered meta-data.

email read receipt
Here is an example of what a sender might see when viewing the email message from an email software client that has this "read receipt" feature.

Now, note that there are wide variations in how precise this kind of feature can be from one email software client to the next; and that this has less to do with variability in the underlying email delivery sequence than it does to do with how the email software client is programmed to report the meta-data to the email user. Regardless, it's still generally accepted that a registered "view event" with this technology is a valid indication that, at a minimum, someone with access to the sent email message viewed the email message. Since most email software clients with this feature will programatically exclude the sender from that "access list," it tends to be a accurate way to know that the recipient, or someone with access to the recipient's email account, viewed the email message.

2) Direct Reply

The second way is fairly obvious: the recipient replies directly to the sender's email message, in thread.

Most email software nowadays will automatically do two things to each subsequent reply in a given thread: (a) group the new reply together with the prior replies in the same thread and (b) create a separate message object denoting a new message on the existing thread. So, run you through an example of this...

  • When you send an email message anew, an email thread is created (i.e. your email message is not grouped together with other, existing email messages, because it was not a reply to some pre-existing email message).
  • Any reply to that email message you sent would be grouped into that thread.
  • Also, each new reply would create a separate email message object, which is what the email thread would consist of.

If you use email already, then you probably already know exactly how this works.

So, if/when the recipient of your email message replies to your email message ("reply" here having a specific, technical meaning in the context of email communication), then the evidence that your email message was delivered and received would be plain to see (which is precisely why this story is comical). Why is this? Because, if the recipient had never received the email message, then a reply to that email message would not have been possible.

3) By Reference

In the context of legal correspondence, it is not uncommon for the recipient of a given legal letter to pass on that letter to someone else for a response to the sender. For example, suppose you send a legal demand letter to the CEO of a $5 billion company. Chances are that you are not going to get a response from that CEO directly. Rather, you're more likely to receive a response from someone to whom the CEO delegated the task of responding to you. In that scenario, then, you may not receive an email reply, in the specific sense of an in-thread response to your email message, but you may receive a separate email message referring to your earlier email message. This serves to confirm delivery and receipt of your earlier email message just the same.

Note also that such a reference could occur in a way that does not actually take the form of a response to you. For example, the recipient to refer to your email message in the recipient's correspondence with some third party. Again, this serves to confirm delivery and receipt of your earlier email message just the same, provided that you have access to that correspondence between the recipient of your email message and that third-party to whom reference to your email message was made.


Now that you know the three main ways that delivery and receipt of an emailed legal letter can be verified, it's a good idea to incorporate this knowledge into your legal correspondence strategy. To that end, here are some suggested takeaways:

  1. Use an email software client that includes this "view event" feature.
  2. Write legal letters in a way that entices recipients to reply.
  3. Save all legal case documentation so that it is easy for you to recognize when a specific reference to your earlier email message is being made.
  4. If ever you encounter any ambiguity in trying to verify delivery and receipt of an emailed legal letter, devise a way to eliminate that ambiguity, just so that this unaddressed ambiguity does not come back to bite you later on.

If you need any help with a legal matter you're currently dealing with, note that you can book a quick, inexpensive micro-consultation here to discuss your case and hammer-out a strategy.