It’s a Whole New Ball Game with Social Media Evidence in Family Law Cases

BarristerSocial media has changed the way the world communicates and connects on a personal level. While many lawyers have resisted the change, it is no longer possible to deny its impact. Your clients are using social media and so should you. Its relevance to family law lawyers takes several forms, none more important than as evidence in court.

This comment will consider the admissibility of online material in court proceedings by reviewing several recent Ontario and British Columbia cases. You will see that social media evidence has made it a whole new ball game for family law litigators.

Family law cases are infamous for “he said/she said” narratives, and in many cases, social media can shed light on the credibility of a litigant’s evidence. In Plese v. Herjavec 2015 ONSC 7572, Dragon’s Den star Robert Herjavec was faced with argument that his net worth was well beyond what he admitted. His wife tendered three exhibits: a Wikipedia excerpt that reported his net worth at $200 million; other social media reports that his net worth was $160 million, and a “getnetworth.net” report in the amount of $100 million. Mr. Herjavec had also written a book where he wrote that he sold his company for $100 million.

He challenged the social media evidence explaining that he had no control over what others published and that most ofit was mere “hype”.

For her part, his wife said that the evidence proferred was not intended to prove the value of his business interests, but to show that his evidence of net worth should be viewed sceptically. She also referenced a speech given by her husband in 2015 where he said that “in three years we can quadruple the value of our business” and increase revenue from $150 million to $250 million.

Mr. Herjavec urged the court to strike the evidence from his wife’s affidavit. The Court declined saying:

“Indeed, the Applicant does not say that she believes the evidence to be true. She does not offer it as evidence of the income of the Respondent or of the value of the business.Rather, she offers it to undermine the credibility of the Respondent and argues that the court ought to conclude that there is serious reason to doubt the accuracy of the Respondent’s evidence and assertions.”

However, the Court also said that it had not relied on the social media evidence in respect of its analysis of Mr.Herjavec’s income.

In Caine v. Ferguson 2012 ONCJ 129 a father, who was a musician, argued that his income was too low for an award of child support to be made against him.

His former wife’s counsel submitted he could be earning $35,000 per annum, and in support of her submission sought to introduce two internet articles from American websites: Payscale andMusicianWages.com.

The chambers judge remarked that in Rodgrigues v. De Sousa 2008 ONCJ 807 he had permitted reports from Ontario Job Futures and Statistics Canada as evidence of income levels for a payor in the insurance industry, as the documents came directly from the provincial and federal governments and had some indicia of reliability.

However, he refused to admit the documents, finding they did not come close to achieving threshold reliability: there was no indication the sources were reputable, no foundation was provided as to the qualifications of the authors of the documents; they were dated; and from the United States. The Court was not satisfied they reflected what a freelance musician could earn in Toronto.

In Balayo v. Meadows 2013 ONSC 5321, a mother made serious and inflammatory allegations against her husband, stating that he was physically abusive to her and verbally abusive to her and their child, who was traumatized by his behaviour. She alleged he was a drug user, drank excessively, and gambled away their assets. The allegations were vociferously denied by the husband who introduced into evidence text messages between the parties that showed cordiality, respect, and cooperation, and evidenced plans to spend time together with their child. The Court noted that a determination of where the truth lay would be facilitated by oral testimony and cross-examination at trial.

The father had not seen his daughter for eight months. In light of the length of time there had been no contact between father and child, the Court ordered short-term supervised access to facilitate a gradual re-introduction of the child to her father, noting that the order should not be considered an acceptance of the mother’s allegations of abusive or harmful behaviour.

In Teuissenv. Hulstra 2017 BCSC 2365 the British Columbia Supreme Court refused the defendant’s application to admit a binder of 277 Facebook posts covering a two-year period in a motor vehicle accident case.

The defendant hoped to use the posts to prove that the plaintiff’s alleged physical impairment and loss of enjoyment of life was exaggerated as evidenced by the activities shown in the Facebook entries. The plaintiff did not object to the defendant entering the posts individually by showing them to a witness and asking relevant questions, but questioned the efficacy of entering a binder of posts some of which had little relevance to the defendant’s position.

Relying on Samuel v. Chryler Credit Canada Ltd. 2007 BCCA 431 the court considered the impractical nature of admitting documents “en masse” and eschewed the practice of entering a book of documents as a whole. The court reasoned that such a process would unduly lengthen already unmanageable trials.

The court held:

” I conclude, therefore, that the proper approach is for the defendant to seek the entry of the pertinent post or picture after properly identifying it, establishing its relevance, and questioning the author on that matter. At that point, the parties can agree or the court will determine whether it should be properly marked as an evidentiary exhibit in this matter.”

To properly submit a book of documents “en masse”, counsel will need to have opposing counsel review the book and agree that each document is authentic and admissible. This exercise will ensure that both counsel have put their mind to each specific document, prior to the trial commencing, thus avoiding the dilemma of hordes of irrelevant material being thrust upon the court.

So long as the usual evidentiary rules are adhered to, social media evidence is no different than other forms of evidence in court. The hallmarks remain relevance and reliability.

Judge “Friends” Wife While Hearing Her Divorce Case

P1010870 - Version 2She’s a Facebook fan and also a Florida judge who thinks its OK to “friend” a litigant in the middle of her divorce trial. No, I’m not kidding!

Sandra Chace and her husband Robert Loisel had just finished their divorce hearing and were awaiting the Judge’s decision, when Sandra received a request from the Judge to become a Facebook friend.

Ms. Chace immediately contacted her lawyer who recommended she not accept the request, so she ignored it.

Shortly thereafter the Judge handed down her Reasons. To Ms. Chace’s dismay the decision was highly favourable to her husband. Notably, the Judge left her responsible for the majority of the family debt and granted her spouse extremely generous alimony.

After learning this Judge had previously contacted litigants through social media and had been compelled to recuse herself, Ms. Chace’s lawyer brought a motion before her alleging a reasonable apprehension of bias based on her internet overture to his client and his client’s rejection of it.

The protocol for applications alleging bias is to go back to the Judge who made the order and have him or her review the situation.

Several years ago I brought a similar application before a judge in the British Columbia Supreme Court on the basis that his remarks during the hearing could lead a reasonable person to believe he was biased against my client.

At the time I thoroughly researched the law on bias and was not surprised to see that in 99.9% of cases, the judge determined there was no bias. That’s the finding this Judge made as well.

Ms. Chace then appealed the decision to the Court of Appeal who disagreed with the Facebook friendly trial judge. The Appeal Court found that Ms. Chace was caught “between the proverbial rock and a hard place”. She was trapped in a difficult position: Should she respond to the Judge’s ex parte communication or ignore it and risk offending the judge?

The Appeal Judges quashed the order of the trial judge and remitted the matter back to the trial court. Ms. Chace can only hope she does better the second time around.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Divorcing Couple Ordered to Exchange Social Media Passwords

By now everyone should know that Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. can provide fertile ground for discovering information about your neighbour, your kids and most importantly, your ex-wife. Recently Judge Kenneth Schluger ordered a divorcing Connecticut couple, Stephen and Courtney Gallion, to exchange their Facebook and dating website passwords.

It seems that Mr. Gallion found some incriminating information about his wife while surfing the web on the computer he shared with her. Courtney Gallion had posted comments about their children and her feelings about their role in her life that her husband thought might be useful for him in his goal to obtain custody of their children.

During a deposition of Ms. Gallion, her husband’s lawyer asked her to provide passwords for her Facebook account and two dating sites she had joined: EHarmony and Match. Her lawyer initially refused to reveal the passwords but later relented.

Upon releasing the passwords, Ms. Gallion texted a close friend and asked her to change the passwords and delete some messages she had posted. That’s when the matter came before Judge Schluger as Mr. Gallion sought to prevent his wife from deleting messages and asked the judge to order the exchange of passwords.

The Court made the orders sought and directed that neither of the parties could visit the websites of the other and post messages purporting to be the other.

But it is not just divorce cases where social media can play an evidentiary role. In a case in Pennsylvania a professional racecar driver sued the owner of a motor speedway for injuries suffered during a race.

The Court ordered the plaintiff to provide his Facebook and MySpace passwords which revealed photos of a fishing trip and a jaunt to the Daytona 500 which undermined the plaintiff’s assertions of physical injury. (McMillan v. Hummingway Speedway #113-2010 CD, Pennsylvania, Sept. 9, 2010)

In another case the Court became a “friend” of the litigant so the Judge could personally review the Facebook postings, looking for relevant evidence in another personal injury case. (Offenback v. Bowman 10- CV 1789 Pennsylvania October 2011).

So, what happened to privacy? It appears that litigation trumps any expectation of privacy in our new world of social media.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang