STEP 2 - Starting your letter: focus on the facts

A good letter of complaint is written in such a way that it can be put before a judge at a later stage of the dispute. Stick to the bare facts, [2.1.] remove all expressions of emotion, and look at the events from a distance, as if they happened to someone else, a stranger.

If you find it helpful, think of your letter as the Captain’s log from Star Trek. What was the date of your flight? What was the flight’s number and destination? What was your ticket number? What went wrong?

Focus on what facts are needed to demonstrate your legal right for what you are seeking. For example, if you were bumped, state that you had a confirmed reservation, that you had all necessary travel documents, and that you presented yourself on time for check-in and boarding, but you were nevertheless denied transportation.

Do not talk about how you are a long-time loyal customer and do not raise moral arguments. [2.2.] The employee reading your letter does not care that you were upset.

The above's authors don't have law degrees. The above is for Canada, but Canadian Contract Law has adopted much of English Contract Law; so some relevant precedents: Jarvis v Swans Tours Ltd [1972] EWCA 8, Farley v Skinner [2001] UKHL 49,

I agree with everything above except 2.2 (that should be distinguished from 2.1). Mustn't you communicate emotional or mental discomfort or distress or suffering from the difficulty somewhere in your letter, if you're seeking compensation or damages for distress or disappointment?

  • I'll comment since a practitioner will know better than I, but I would suspect that in the cases where you are suing for compensation or damages for distress or whatever (assuming that is a real claim), you would submit the complaint stating that there, in fact, was emotional distress (or whatever the standard is under the law of your jurisdiction) and leave it at that. The authors are right. The emotions can be strategically used at trial, but nobody wants to read about how somebody was just so mad about what happened from the countless complaints they have to read each day.
    – A.fm.
    Sep 11 '17 at 4:51

There are two issues here. One is that there's a distinction between expressing emotion and observing emotion. The other is to think carefully about the purpose of each letter and the elements of the relevant legal cause of action, to determine which (if any) of your emotions are relevant.

Examples of expressing emotion include

  • 'You're a @#$%!'
  • 'I can't believe your employee was so rude!'
  • 'Your service was appalling.'

An example of observing emotion is 'I was very upset when your employee said X and as a result I was unable to speak.'

Expressing emotion is generally a bad idea, for reasons including (a) it will make the addressee angry and so they will not cooperate with you, (b) it will make you look weak and (c) if you appear to insult/offend/etc the reader then the tables are turned and you become the bad guy, so nobody will care about the earlier injustice committed against you.

In contrast, observing emotion can be useful in providing context/explanation around your actions or as a basis for compensation. This is where Jarvis v Swan Tours and Farley v Skinner are relevant.

The next issue is about whether your emotions are relevant. Sometimes you know that the defendant will not comply with your request for a remedy, and you know you will have to go to court. In such a case, your complaint to the defendant has an element of theatre to it; your real audience is the court who will receive a copy of your letter when you ask for costs. The key in such a case is to ensure your letter conveys the facts that are relevant to the cause of action, so you can show the judge, 'See, they knew about the problem and refused to do anything about it, so I was forced to come to court.'

Suppose the defendant-to-be was a cleaning company hired to clean your carpet and they ruined your carpet. The relevant facts include what they did, the result that your carpet was ruined (and precisely how), and the cost to you in terms of the value of the carpet or repair costs. Your emotions are irrelevant.

But suppose the defendant-to-be has killed your dog. It might be very important to demonstrate that you were distraught because you love this dog so much. You might observe that you had a long relationship with the dog and were very sad, cried a lot, etc -- all the outward manifestations of your emotions -- but you would still not express emotions in your letter.


You have to know who your audience is.

A small family business owner might respond differently than a major corporation. One business might be receptive to complaints and concerned about a spillover to social media, while others might not care.

At a minimum, one ought to be coherent, which a lot of people cease to be when they get emotional. But, there isn't one uniform answer. The stock advice given is generally good for large impersonal corporations when the only emotional harm you've suffered is inconvenience dealing with the corporation. But, it doesn't apply at all times and in all situations.

Emotional pleas and pleas to morality are actually best in circumstances when you don't have a legal case but might get relief if you make a fuss.

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