Legal experts call for judges to get more familiar with emojis

Ellen Manning
<em>Judges and lawyers need to be more familiar with emojis, legal experts have said (Picture: Getty)</em>
Judges and lawyers need to be more familiar with emojis, legal experts have said (Picture: Getty)

Judges and lawyers need to become more familiar with the world of emojis as they increasingly become part of court cases, legal experts have said.

To most people, emojis are a common part of life, using them as part of everyday language in text messages and on social media.

But that also means that they are increasingly part of evidence in courts of law, from criminal to divorce courts.

While the small images are often used light-heartedly, some are used inappropriately while others have become recognised symbols relating to drugs and other crime.

Emojis are already commonplace in US law courts, but several legal experts have called for the UK judiciary to become more familiar with them.

<em>Emojis are increasingly appearing in court cases (Picture: PA)</em>
Emojis are increasingly appearing in court cases (Picture: PA)

Felicity Gerry QC, who has specialised in cases involving sexual offences for 20 years and now specialises in terrorism, told Yahoo News UK that nearly all of the cases involved communication – increasingly involving data communication.

“People increasingly communicate using pictures,” she said. “Now, it’s okay if you have got the person available to say, ‘that’s what I meant’, but they may not be believed. A prosecution lawyer may say, ‘that’s not what you meant’.

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“Obviously there’s a fine line sometimes and context will be enough but sometimes it won’t. It’s at the very least the sort of situation where you might need a glossary.

“If we go on the assumption that we think we know what that means then there’s a real risk there will be a miscarriage of justice.”

Ms Gerry, who is working on a PhD looking at using data to combat human trafficking, said there is a real danger that victims of trafficking who are forced to commit crimes could be confused as criminals if instructions they received – sometimes using emojis – aren’t interpreted correctly.

While primers have been issued to judges addressing issues like DNA, she said it would be more helpful for such information to focus on newer issues.

“I think it would be better if they started with the things that are new, like data communication. Or at the very least apply your minds to it.”

Natasha Phillips, children law expert and founder of Researching Reform – a project to help improve legislation and policy around child welfare and child rights – said: “Emojis have become increasingly popular over the last ten years and they’re finding their way into evidence, particularly within criminal cases.

“It’s vital for judges to learn the ‘language’ and to keep up to date with the changing meanings for these symbols, in order to be able to deliver effective judgments.”

Lorraine Harvey, principal lawyer at Slater & Gordon, said emojis are commonplace in divorce cases, with couples often using screenshots of messages including emojis to demonstrate adultery or unreasonable behaviour.

She said: “I do think it’s important for the judiciary to keep abreast of what they mean and how you can interpret them. So I think it’s time for the judiciary to have some familiarity of what they mean.”

While they may not necessarily be presented as evidence in divorce courts to judges, it’s also important for lawyers to understand emojis and what they mean, she said.

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