The sins of social media

Divorce|April 2nd 2019

In any type of litigation the parties may obviously be aggrieved by a decision of the court that goes against them. However, in family litigation the sense of injustice can go much deeper, especially where children are involved. It can reach such a point that the aggrieved party may seek redress outside of the court, which they see as biased against them.

This is nothing new. Aggrieved litigants have always gone to the media to try to gain support for their case. However, more often than not of course the media are not interested, or not prepared to get involved. What has changed in recent times is that other avenues of redress have opened up for the aggrieved litigant.

I am talking, of course, about social media, whether Twitter, Facebook, blogging, YouTube or some other form. Social media has given the aggrieved litigant a potential audience beyond anything that could previously have been imagined. And there are few limitations upon what can be said on social media. Better still, you can reach that audience with great ease, by writing a few words, or by just posting a video, all from the comfort of your own home. But that ease of use can be a problem: without the ‘filter’ of having to go to the media, litigants can often get themselves into trouble before they have had a chance to consider the implications.

Obviously, the actual audience may often initially be quite small, limited to those friends and family who follow your social media account. But it doesn’t take much knowledge to widen the audience significantly, by reaching out to others with a similar grievance. And then those others only need to click a button to spread the word to their own followers. Soon your story might be known by thousands of like-minded people.

It all seems such a wonderful idea. With a few words and a few clicks of a mouse you can gather an army of supporters, ready to tackle the injustices of the biased family courts.

But this road is fraught with dangers, and it will almost certainly not provide you with the result you seek. Instead, it is only likely to damage your case, possibly fatally.

The first and obvious point to make is that the court is likely to take an extremely dim view of a party who uses social media in an attempt to undermine the authority of the court. This could well influence future decisions made by the court.

The second point to make is that children involved in family court proceedings should usually not be identified. And that also means that it should not be possible to do a ‘jigsaw’ identification, by giving sufficient details to enable them to be identified even if they are not actually named. Courts are likely to penalise anyone identifying a child involved in family proceedings.

Note that even if you use social media anonymously and do not identify any of the parties involved, there is still a very high chance that your reader/watchers/listeners (or some of them) will be able to work out who you are. It isn’t worth the risk.

And the final point I wish to make is a non-legal one. Think of the effect upon your child of what you are doing. Do they want to be at the centre of a social media storm? Do they want the intimate details of their family life exposed to public scrutiny? And remember what you are doing may deepen the rifts within their family, leaving them with scars that may remain for the rest of their lives.

Let me be clear: unless the court has expressly forbidden you from discussing your case with anyone at all, you are not expected to keep entirely silent. It is quite normal to discuss a family case with other members of your family, or close friends. In fact, such discussions can be very useful, acting both as a relief valve and a support at an extremely stressful time in one’s life (best though to ignore any ‘legal’ advice from friends and family). But you should only of course discuss your case with people that you can trust not to discuss it with others. Being impersonal, social media doesn’t usually have that protection.

The moral of the story is very simple: the only safe course is not to mention or discuss your case on social media. Don’t be tempted to rush to your computer as soon as you get back from court: think about the implications of what you are about to do.

I realise that all of the above will have been said before, including by me. But it clearly needs to be repeated. Increasing numbers of parents are continuing to fall into the trap of taking their case to the court of social media, rather than concentrating on the only court that matters: the Family Court.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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