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Vulnerable Need Protection In Online Privacy Debate

Experts Demand Action To Protect Most Sensitive Cases


Legal experts who provide support to the most vulnerable members of society have called for a change in the law on injunctions in order to ensure those involved in the increasingly sensitive court battles are protected from harm.

The growing use of super-injunctions by the rich and famous has put the issue of privacy laws in the spotlight, with many media commentators concerned by the contrasting rules governing traditional press outlets and massively influential social media sites.

Now, national law firm Irwin Mitchell is calling for the government to make a review of such legislation a priority, over concerns that measures in place to protect the private lives of vulnerable members of society could be in jeopardy.

Anne-Marie Irwin, a solicitor and public law specialist at Irwin Mitchell, explained: “Our worry is what happens when social media users choose to break injunctions brought into action to protect vulnerable people who do not have the mental capacity to make their own decisions.

“We deal with a number of cases related to highly sensitive and often emotive issues, including whether clients should have contact with family members, be granted access to medical treatment and even if they should be granted the right to die.

“The recent furore has shown that if current laws cannot protect those in the public eye, they will do little to prohibit the publication of material of the absolute most sensitive nature.”

Examining recent events on Twitter, Anne-Marie went on to outline what the differences are between social media and the traditional press.

She said: “The law surrounding press injunctions is quite simple - if a newspaper which has been served with an injunction then publishes prohibited information, it will be in contempt of court and liable for punishment.

“However, social networking sites such as Twitter have muddied the waters when it comes to the web. Twitter’s current stance is that it is a technology platform which does not monitor or police content and is in no way responsible for tweets that are found to be in breach of an injunction.

“This is markedly different to Facebook, which has a ‘Statement of Rights and Responsibilities’ to which each user agrees before signing up to the site. Facebook also reserves the right to remove any content which it feels violates the terms of the Statement.”

The expert added that, at present, there is a just one – rather flawed – legal avenue that can be considered to deal with the publication of prohibited material on websites.

“A Norwich Pharmacal order is recognised as the most effective tool in this area currently. This requires an internet service provider to disclose the email account details of the user of a website, such as Twitter,” she confirmed.

“If the user is aware of the injunction, it will then be possible to prosecute that individual for breach of the order. However, the vital problem is that this can only be used to bring people to account after information is in the public domain. For all of our clients, this would be far too late.”
Concluding, Anne-Marie urged, for the sake of the huge number of vulnerable adults whose lives could be affected, that the government moves quickly to clarify and improve the law in this area.

“It is difficult to see how the courts can prevent such sensitive information from being published on social networking sites without a change in the law,” she continued.

“A government commission is investigating the possibility of creating a UK Bill of Rights which should address the issue at the end of next year, but that is too long to wait when courts are already facing an uphill battle to keep sensitive information from being published.

“Unless action is taken now, orders made by the court with the intention of protecting the private lives of the most vulnerable in society may remain practically unenforceable in the face of the one billion tweets sent by Twitter users every week."