Individuals and families are increasingly communicating and conducting their lives on social media – from attempts to mirror Bake Off cakes to marriages, births, deaths and, importantly for lawyers, divorces.
Family law specialists have noticed that in recent years nearly every case that crosses their desks includes issues relating to social media and the use of smartphones.
Clients either initiating or on the receiving end of divorce proceedings and associated financial or children applications are well-advised from the outset to consider carefully how they are presenting themselves online.
A picture is worth a thousand words and could potentially cost many thousands of pounds in a financial settlement. Individuals may plead poverty, only for the other half to produce a catalogue of images of that person attending flash parties and enjoying lavish holidays. This can be a huge distraction from the important matter of both parties engaging in full and frank financial disclosure, which is crucial in preventing matters dragging on unnecessarily.
Money is one thing, but matters can become more serious where issues relating to children are raised. Family solicitors frequently see cases where the other side has slavishly collated print-outs from social media to suggest that an individual or a new partner is unsuited to caring for the parties' children. An ostensibly innocent comment posted online or an unfortunate drunken photo can have serious consequences.
Likewise, It is easy for a client to take a screenshot of text messages – now displayed in a useful conversation format, which can be traced back over several months or years – and email them to a solicitor. In the past it was harder to prove the “he said, she said” of previous agreements in relation to assets or financial support; these are now easily accessible to all and often printed and inserted into witness statements and court bundles.
Relationship breakdown is emotional and stressful – it is easy to send aggressive or abusive messages. Clients should pause and consider how those words might look as an enclosure to a solicitor’s letter or bundle in front of a judge.
There have been instances where clients have realised that the other side, and, more worryingly, children, have had access to messages and emails because the devices previously used by all the family remain “synced”. While people will clearly have a lot on their minds should a relationship break down, they must think carefully about who has access to what.
Passwords should be changed and care should be taken to ensure that communications remain private. Parties involved in proceedings will be advised by their solicitors that if they deliberately attempt to access private information belonging to their spouse or partner, they run the risk of civil – or in extreme cases, criminal – proceedings or an unwelcome costs order being made against them.
Family disputes are unpleasant enough without the stress and conflict that can arise from social media use. Simple steps and common sense can make the process much easier and quicker to resolve.
This article originally appeared in The Brief.