The challenges of social media

Family Law|March 25th 2015

Only a couple of days ago I wrote here about parties to family proceedings using the internet in general, and social media in particular, as a weapon in legal proceedings. It didn’t take me long to come across another case where social media had been abused, albeit in a different way.

It is not uncommon for a court to forbid one person from contacting another. Such an order might, for example, be part of a domestic violence injunction designed to prevent one party from harassing another. Another example, used particularly in public law proceedings, is an order forbidding a person from contacting a child – it was this latter type of order that featured in this particular case.

The problem that the courts must now grapple with when making such an order is that there are now more ways than ever that one person can communicate with another. In the days before the internet and mobile phones, pretty well the only methods of communication were face to face, land-line telephone or letter. It was comparatively easy to keep track of any attempt by a person to communicate via one of these methods.

Now, there are all sorts of other methods of communication available, including mobile phones, text messaging, Skype and via various social media platforms. Policing all of these methods, as well as the ‘old’ ones, can be quite a headache for the courts and those involved in the family justice system.

The County Court case in question was decided by Mr Justice Moor in April last year, but has only just found its way on to Bailii. Re McQueen concerned a fifteen year old girl, ‘P’, who was in Local Authority foster care as a result of a hearing in 2007, when it was found that P’s maternal grandfather had sexually abused her.

In 2013 the Local Authority applied for an injunction to prevent the uncle from contacting P. The court made an injunction that he was not to initiate (either himself or through any other person) any direct or indirect contact with P and he was not to communicate either himself or through any other person with P.  The Judge also warned him that the injunction applied even if P was to contact him.

The hearing before Mr Justice Moor concerned an application by the local authority for the uncle to be committed to prison for breach of the injunction. The authority alleged that he had breached the injunction in two respects: by communicating with P via Facebook and by attempting to contact her by telephone.

According to the evidence, the Facebook communications began when P attempted to contact her uncle to find out whether he had paid her mobile phone bill, as her phone had been cut off. It is clear from the transcripts that the man was aware that he should not respond, but Mr Justice Moor found that he had done so, at one point even sending a message in which he suggested that P had been made to lie to the court in the original proceedings. The man admitted breaching the order via Facebook.

As to the attempted telephone contact, his calls were answered by a social worker who was aware who he was, having met him previously. He maintained that he made the calls in error, but Mr Justice Moor found that he had made them deliberately.

In the circumstances, Mr Justice Moor held that the uncle was in breach of the injunction. We do not know what sentence he received – presumably, he was sentenced at a later date.

The legal problems associated with communications via social media are twofold: firstly, monitoring it and secondly, the fact that messages can be deleted before they are found. The report of Re McQueen does not state this, but I assume that social workers were monitoring P’s Facebook page. Monitoring all forms of social media can no doubt be an extremely onerous task, especially for busy social workers, and I’m sure that many things must go unnoticed. I am not particularly au fait with Facebook, but I assume that messages can be deleted, which means that any monitoring must be on a regular basis.

The internet and social media are now an integral part of life for the majority, and will doubtless continue to change and develop. This presents the family justice system with challenges that could not have been imagined just a couple of decades ago. Keeping on top of those challenges is going to be no easy matter.

Image by Marco Paköeningrat via Flickr

Author: Stowe Family Law

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