M ORE often than not, people don't see sending a message to someone on Facebook as "contact".
Unfortunately for them, the courts do. Social networking sites are a relatively new phenomenon and, while the law's position on their use is clear, many of the people using them still don't fully understand the impact they can have in a legal case.
I'm sure that a juror would never dream of strolling up and chatting to the defendant in the street, yet, as this case has shown, they might view Facebook differently, almost, as detached from the real world. Of course, to the court, contact is contact and Joanne Fraill found out the hard way just how seriously they take it.
We are seeing an increasing number of cases involving Facebook, Twitter or MSN, ranging from family cases to criminal cases. They can have a huge impact.
Printouts of Facebook statuses, messages or conversations are now almost common in court proceedings. They are not often the main focus, but they are increasingly used to set a case's context. For example, it is extremely rare for a defendant to send a message to his victim admitting they assaulted them, but the defendant's status updates and messages could be used to paint a picture of his frame of mind or the environment he was subject to in the lead-up to the assault, giving it a new perspective.
Social networking sites are also becoming places for people to vent their emotions, seemingly oblivious to the consequences. For example, a disgruntled wife is more likely to discuss personal details of her unhappy marriage or send abusive messages to her estranged husband online than she is to say it face-to-face.
I have endless cases of clients coming into the office saying their ex-partner is harassing them via Facebook or Twitter. And, of course, this kind of contact leaves a trail that is very easy to print and present as evidence in court. Similarly, posting a ream of status updates abusing your ex-partner during a divorce or child custody case might feel satisfying in the short term, but it can have a negative impact. It is often used by the opposing side in their favour.
Of course Facebook doesn't only affect adults in cases. There are many children using it. There are cases when a parent is not allowed contact with their child while a court decides if it is in the child's best interest to have contact with them in the future. Parents have been known to contact their children on Facebook or MSN, despite a ruling not yet being made. This can seriously affect the progress of the case, but people often don't think they have done anything wrong - they don't realise they are having contact with the …