A Warning from the Courts: Step Away From The Social Media

3 July, 2018

 Divorce and Facebook is a dangerous combination

It’s now very easy to share our personal views and thoughts with the world via social media. When it’s positive, this can be a force for good, however, social media can also be used to attack others, causing serious harm.

The recent decision in the Court of Appeal in Stocker v Stocker, a libel action brought by an ex-husband against his former wife, illustrates the risks of using social media to spread seriously damaging allegations about a former spouse (or anyone, in fact).

In the case, the Court made it very clear that a person who posts defamatory comments on a Facebook wall is responsible in law for their publication to all third parties who read them. Where those comments are defamatory (untrue statements made to third parties that cause serious harm to the subject of the statements/allegations) then liability will be found.

Whilst this ruling on liability may not appear particularly surprising or contentious, the facts of the case are a salutary reminder to those involved in divorce, or other family law disputes, of the need for restraint when it comes to publicly commenting on a former partner/spouse.

The Original Case

Libel proceedings began in 2015 in the High Court when Ronald Stocker brought a claim against his ex-wife Nicola, relating to a post she left on the Facebook page of his new partner, about an incident in the past when he had allegedly been violent towards her.  

We commented on this case at the time, highlighting a heightened risk of disputes spreading beyond court proceedings to the wider-world because of the increasing popularity of social media.

In Stocker v Stocker, the Court heard that Mrs Stocker had become Facebook friends with her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, Ms Bligh, and had commented on a status update posted on Ms Bligh’s Facebook wall. Ms Bligh then posted a further status update asking Mrs Stocker to call her, which led to Mrs Stocker making various comments on Ms Bligh’s Facebook wall, which her ex-husband alleged were defamatory.

In her defence, Mrs Stocker claimed that although she knew her comments on Ms Bligh’s initial status update were visible to Ms Bligh’s Facebook friends, she believed that her comments following the further status update were private. The Court rejected this argument, however,  and found that Mrs Stocker

“…did not give a moment’s thought to the fact that their exchanges were being conducted in a semi-public arena accessible to all Ms Bligh’s Facebook friends.”

The High Court found that the post was defamatory, and awarded in Mr Stocker’s favour.

Court of Appeal

Mrs Stocker appealed the decision but found little sympathy in the Court of Appeal.

The Court commented that Mrs Stocker was aware that the particular Facebook platform was semi-public and deliberately posted on it without thinking about who else might see her posts.

Lady Justice Sharp said:

“…the posting of the Comments on Ms Bligh’s Facebook Wall was in reality no different in substance or in principle to the putting up of a notice on a conventional notice board, accessible to third parties.”

The fact that the notice board in this case (Facebook wall) was electronic rather than a physical board was immaterial for the purposes of deciding liability; the comments made were instantly accessible to all of Ms Bligh’s Facebook friends and so, in legal terms, Mrs Stocker published them directly to every third party who read them on the Facebook wall.

Conclusion

In particularly emotive family disputes a party may be tempted to seek to gain an advantage by taking the dispute outside of a courtroom setting, onto a public forum such as Facebook or Twitter. However, this is very risky and the Court of Appeal has made it clear that when defamatory comments are made, the offending party will be held liable.

If you’d like more information on this, our latest Guidance Note explains further Reputation Protection in the context of Family Law proceedings.