Judge's Instagram ruling a 'practical solution' to problems of online anonymity, says expert

Out-Law News | 26 Jun 2015 | 2:43 pm | 1 min. read

A judge's decision to allow a man experiencing alleged harassment over the internet to serve legal claims to the person accused of the activity via Instagram "appears to be a practical solution" to the issue of online anonymity, an expert has said.

According to a report by Media Lawyer, High Court judge Mr Justice Nicol earlier this month ruled that an unnamed student can use Instagram to notify an unnamed accused of legal proceedings he is bringing against the accused. Anonymity has been preserved in the case.

It is believed to be the first time a judge has allowed legal claims to be served via Instagram, although judges have previously allowed legal claims to be served via other social media platforms.

The student had claimed that the accused has threatened to make false complaints that he has committed serious sex offences and to publish intimate private photos, the Media Lawyer report said.

Mr Justice Nicol said the student could notify the accused of the legal action he is taking to prevent the disclosures via Instagram because it was the only way to inform the accused, and because the student was likely to obtain injunctions preventing the disclosures at a trial of the case, according to the Media Lawyer report. The student has said he does not know the identity of the accused, it said.

Imogen Allen-Back, media lawyer at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that uncovering the identity of anonymous internet users can "take some time" and that serving legal papers against an accused via social media services like Instagram might be the only way to inform those people of the injunctive action being taken against them.

"Social media applications that allow users to remain anonymous make it more challenging to act quickly to restrain conduct that infringes other users’ rights," Allen-Back said. "The judge’s approach to service of proceedings in this case appears to provide a practical solution to dealing with this challenge, albeit that the format of Instagram images might give rise to some technical challenges in ensuring the documents to be served are presented in a legible format."

Under the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR) in England and Wales claimants in court cases are generally required to serve documents on defendants at the address they live at but courts can authorise the serving of documents in other ways if there is "a good reason" to do so. The CPR state that "the court may make an order permitting service by an alternative method or at an alternative place". Applications for such an order "must be supported by evidence", the CPR state.