With the advent and continued global spread of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and a range of similarly accessible social media platforms, we are now living in a society within which it is incredibly easy to disseminate personal information. In the context of Family Law matters, a desire to either 'vent', or to 'set the story straight' can often prove irresistible. With this in mind, one incredibly important question to ask within these circumstances is whether there is anything wrong with providing people with information specifically relating to your Family Law matters.
Of particular relevance to this question is Section 121 of the Family Law Act, which states that:
"A person who publishes in a newspaper or periodical publication, by radio broadcast or television or by other electronic means, or otherwise disseminates to the public or to a section of the public by any means, any account of any proceedings, or of any part of any proceedings, under this Act that identifies:
- a party to the proceedings;
- a person who is related to, or associated with, a party to the proceedings or is, or is alleged to be, in any other way concerned in the matter to which the proceedings relate; or
- a witness in the proceedings;
commits an offence punishable, upon conviction by imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year."
A number of relevant points to consider do arise as a consequence of this particular section of the legislation. Firstly, it should be noted that Section 121 specifically relates to proceedings, therefore, if there are no proceedings before the Family Court, technically speaking, you are at liberty to say anything that you want to on social media. With this said, as an experienced family lawyer, I would strongly counsel a person against doing so, as anything that is posted online is likely to be accessible in one way or another, and if uncovered, is likely to be put before the Family Court.
Coleman Greig has found that statements written in the heat of the moment more often than not afford the author no credit at all, and are more likely to cause issues than they are to help resolve them.
Another important factor to take into consideration is that the definition relating to the actual method by which sensitive information can be 'published' is very broad. Reference is made within Section 121 to things being published by 'electronic means', which does, by its very definition as set out in that section, include social media platforms, as well as any and all other forms of digital publication (i.e. blogs, personal websites, digital newsletters etc.).
Such publication would amount to an offence if it identifies a party to proceedings, or any person related to proceedings. Therefore, it would be sufficient to publish, either to the public or to a section of public, the fact that you are involved in Family Law proceedings, and who those proceedings involve, to have potentially committed an offence within the context of Section 121 of the Act.
In looking at what is and isn't appropriate within this context, consideration must be given to what 'the public or a section of the public' may actually refer to. In the matter of Re Edelsten; Ex Parte Donnelly, Morling J said:
"in the context of Section 121, 'disseminates to the public' should be taken as a reference to widespread communication with the aim of reaching a wide audience".
Therefore, either talking with or sending an email to a friend is unlikely to contravene Section 121, although disseminating the same information to all of your social media friends and followers may constitute a breach - especially if your account's privacy settings allow for more than one person to see what you have posted.
Thought must also be given to whether the person who is receiving the information has a 'rational connection' to the outcome of the matter or the proceedings that are before the Family court. It is unlikely that each and every one of your followers on social media would legitimately fit the definition of having a 'rational connection'.
With the above in mind, real thought must be given not only to the use of social media in a broad sense (as it has been my experience that social media use is generally responsible for more negatives than positives within the context of Family Law matters), but also to the type of sensitive information which either can or cannot be shared once the matter is before the Family Court.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.