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The perils of social media and playing detective in family disputes

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Family law disputes – the perils of social media and technology.

As a family law solicitor, I often say that ‘nothing surprises me’. But with the advent of new technologies and the proliferation of social media I find myself amazed by some of the things I read about in Family Law case notes and some of the incidents experienced by my clients.

The most challenging cases I deal with are one’s where parents fail to agree about the arrangements for the care of their children. What works when a child is 2 or 3 years old is very different to the arrangements which are needed when they are teenagers. If the parents do not manage to fix their parenting relationship at an early stage, the consequences for them and their children can be far reaching and often unhappy.

Making private thoughts public

Social media has become a very popular method of telling close friends and anybody else who wants to know exactly how much someone dislikes or distrusts their ex. It appears that sometimes no thought is given to the possibility of their child one day accessing that tirade written in a fit of pique.  As I repeatedly say to my own children “don’t put anything on social media that you would be unhappy about your grandmother seeing”. Perhaps we should apply the same principles to parents in the midst of litigation, don’t put anything on social media that you would not like your ex or your child to read.

Playing detective around your children

An increasingly popular mechanism for ‘proving’ exactly how awful an ex-partner is, is using mobile phones and tablets to record children in an attempt to gather together evidence which will persuade a family lawyer, the court or the CAFCASS Officer that one parent is better or that a former partner can’t be trusted. Sometimes these recordings are made with the full knowledge (or suspicion) of the other parent or child which can be distressing in itself, but just as commonly they are made surreptitiously. Secret recordings will often present a biased picture, the recorder will often ask questions or raise issues they know will elicit a negative response. The recordings made with full knowledge do little other than establish for the Court how far the parents have drifted from their fundamental remit to protect their child from emotional harm.

Recording a child ‘telling all’ after a visit can be equally harmful. We have always warned our clients against interrogating children after contact visits, it is well documented that children often find this very distressing and, depending on their age and understanding, they will often say what that parent wants to hear rather than what they really feel. Such tactics leave the child feeling responsible for upsetting a parent or having to choose between their parents. No child should ever be put in this position. 

The dangers of playing detective around your children

In a recent court hearing, not one of mine I hasten to add, a father lost the main residence of his daughter after sewing recording devices into her school blazer in a bid to obtain incriminating evidence against his ex-wife. In his judgment, Justice Peter Jackson said “It is almost always likely to be wrong for a recording device to be placed on a child for the purpose of gathering evidence in family proceedings, whether or not the child is aware of its presence. This should hardly need saying but nowadays it is all too easy for individuals to record other people without their knowledge.”

I myself had a case recently where a client had gathered recorded evidence of handovers and was perplexed as to why the CAFCASS Officer did not want to hear them. He did ultimately understand that it didn’t add anything to the case other than evidence that the parents’ relationship was toxic. It is worth noting that it is often the parents’ relationship with one another which determines whether or not child arrangements put in place work and whether a child survives their parents’ separation with minimal emotional fallout.

Separate your relationships for the benefit of your children

If I could give clients any advice before their relationship had completely deteriorated, it would be to separate their relationship with the other parent from the relationship they each have with the children. Separated parents don’t have to become the best of friends, they do not even need to like each other, but they should have a shared commitment to the wellbeing of their children which requires them to behave positively in front of them. It’s not easy, but the children would thank them for it.

Tamara Glanvill
Family law solicitor, Bedford

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