q Can You Open Someone Else’s Mail in Canada? - Advocate Daily
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It’s become increasingly rare for any important or sensitive material to be sent through the mail these days. The much more modern, economical and ecologically friendly option is, of course, email. Most people prefer the convenience of simply checking their computer or mobile phone to view their latest bills for subscriptions, utilities, taxes, you name it.

The post is more often than not seen as outdated, giving rise to the popular moniker of “snail mail”. Our mailboxes (when we do check them) are usually filled with flyers, coupons or mail from a former resident at your address.

According to some reports, upwards of 60% of respondents report getting mail from a former owner or tenant of a property. It’s certainly not an isolated incident.

Most of these items are quickly discarded in the recycling bin, but what about Mrs. Sinclair’s letter from her aunt down in Florida? Can you open someone else’s mail in Canada?

If you have questions for a privacy lawyer in Canada, reach out to this lawyer via their contact form.

Can You Open Someone Else’s Mail in Canada?

Having express permission

The answer in most cases is no. It’s an offence to open any person’s mail without their express permission. This applies to any mail, sensitive or not, and not only mail sent to you by mistake but also mail you might find lying on the street. It’s technically illegal to browse a magazine that was sent to you by mistake.

At first glance, it may seem fairly innocuous, though a gross invasion of privacy, to read someone’s letter from a relative or browse a magazine not addressed to you.

There are still plenty of sensitive materials sent through the mail and the post is still used by many, especially the elderly and less technology savvy. Sensitive materials like credit card statements or utility bills can easily be used to commit identity fraud and other similar crimes.

Not so innocuous.

In 2021, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre received 27,531 reports of identity fraud and 11,094 reports of identity theft. Cases are on the rise.

If at any point you need legal advice, find a lawyer on ClearWayLaw.

identity theft

The Canada Post Act

The Canada Post Act is the Canadian law that codifies the rules surrounding the handling of mail by the Canada Post Corporation and private citizens.

Specifically, section 48 lays out the offences and punishment regarding the handling of mail. This section lays out that it is not only illegal to open mail that isn’t yours, but also an offence to simply keep or unduly delay the receipt of that mail. That means that not only is it an offence to open someone else’s mail, but the simple act of discarding that mail is also a crime.

It’s important to note that it’s also an offence under this act to remove or deface a Canada Post postage stamp without express permission.

There are a few important exceptions that have been made for those authorized by either the Canada Post Act itself, the Customs Act or the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and the Terrorist Financing Act. These relate to investigations by police or customs officials, not private citizens. Legally speaking, there aren’t any grounds for a private citizen to open someone else’s mail without permission.

What if you open someone else’s mail by accident in Canada?

The key word to note here is “knowingly”.

There needs to be intentional. What this means is that you won’t be liable for charges if you accidentally open a letter not addressed to you that finds its way into your mailbox. There has to be an intention on your part to commit a crime with the information found within that letter, such as fraud for example.

What should you do if you receive someone else’s mail?

If you continue to receive mail that isn’t yours, there are a few steps you can take.

First of all, you can try to contact the intended recipient of the mail and get them to update their mailing information.

Contact Canada Post directly

You can also cross out the mailing address on the envelope and write “moved” or “unknown” on the letter and place it in a street letter box. If you continue to receive mail intended for this person, you should contact Canada Post directly so they properly deal with the issue.

A more modern, and some might say, the more relevant question would be: What about email?

In a lot of cases, the same sensitive material sent through regular mail is now regularly and readily accessible electronically via email, but is it treated the same?

Can you open someone else’s email in Canada?

The short answer is also no, but the legal basis behind it isn’t quite so clear-cut and entrenched as regular mail. Although there aren’t specific laws that state accessing someone else’s email is illegal, there is plenty of legal precedents related to cybercrime to back this up. This is likely to be more the case, as email continues to become the standard form of communication.

For example, section 342.1 of the Canadian Criminal Code makes hacking illegal, which could apply to methods used to access one’s email.

For the most part, it’s illegal to access someone’s email without their express permission. Keep in mind, if you’ve ever shared your password with someone and they’ve accessed your email, that’s you giving your expressed content.

In short, keep yourself safe and don’t share your password.

Can you open someone else’s email?

The short answer to whether you can open someone else’s mail is no. A private citizen cannot under any circumstances open someone else’s mail without their expressed permission. There also needs to be intent; you’re not going to be found culpable of a crime if you accidentally open some mail sent to your address under another name.

So, if you come across some mail that isn’t addressed to you, either at your home or on the street, it’s best to leave it unopened. Not only is it a decent thing to do, but it’s also the law. Do the right thing respect that stranger’s privacy and do your best to get that message to them.

Response from a reader:

“I respectfully disagree with your conclusion regarding opening mail addressed to a previous occupant, your article here: Can You Open Someone Else’s Mail in Canada?

The definition of “mail” under the Canada Post Corporation Act s. 2(1) clearly defines mail as mailable matter from the time posted “to the time it is delivered to the addressee.”

Delivery is further defined in s. 2(2), which is one of three ways: leaving mail at the place of residence of the addressee, depositing mail in a post office lock box or rural mailbox or any other device or receptacle provided for the receipt of mail, and leaving mail with a servant or agent, etc.

There is ample case law supporting that once the mail is delivered in the usual manner under the Act and no longer within the control of Canada Post, there is no illegal act in opening it, regardless of what name is on the address label.

In Artes-Roy v Fiddes et al, 2000 BCSC 470 (CanLII), the Court found that delivery did not require delivery to the person named ‘personally’ to be considered delivered. The Court found that the possession of mail addressed to one spouse and intercepted and opened by another at the matrimonial home in a divorce case did not constitute a theft of mail because it had already been delivered as defined in the CPCA.

In Thomas v Attorney General (Canada), 2006 ABQB 730 (CanLII), an item of mail that had been addressed to one post office box but misdelivered to another, was opened unknowingly by the owner of that box who subsequently discovered it contained $18,000 in cash was, absent a claim by the true owner, entitled to keep the cash over the claim of the Attorney General.

The true owner had refused to cooperate with police after an investigation and disclaimed knowledge of the cash, leaving the next claimant as the person who opened the mail after delivery.

I am unaware of any prosecutions for opening mail to a previous tenant or occupant under either the Criminal Code or the Canada Post Corporation Act, even after several case law searches.

It is conventional wisdom that one shouldn’t open mail with a previous occupant’s name on the outside, and often the solution is to mark it “return to sender” and drop it in the mailbox.

However, there appears to be no statutory obligation to do this, and certainly when no restrictive endorsements are made by the sender, such as “Confidential” or “To be opened by addressee only”, it is doubtful that any consequence would arise from opening mail safely delivered to your mailbox, notwithstanding someone elses’ name may appear on it.

By all indications, Canada Post has discharged their responsibility, and lifted the legal protections, over mail once they have deposited in your mailbox.”

-Ray Morrell