Evidence obtained unlawfully from Facebook – does it infringe the right to privacy?
An Article by Advocate Ivor Heyman (Protea Group), 6 May 2019
Does an aggrieved party have a right to privacy when evidence about him has been obtained unlawfully obtained from Facebook?
In the recent case of Harvey
v Niland 2016 (2) SA 436 (ECG), the applicant, Mr Harvey,
and the first respondent, Mr Niland, were the only members of a close
corporation, Huntershill Safaris CC, which offered professional hunting
services to its clients. Niland was employed by Huntershill as a professional
hunter and safari guide until mid 2015. Around that time, Harvey and Niland
parted ways on bad terms and Niland took up employment with another hunting
company, Thaba Thala Safaris.
Harvey suspected Niland of breaching his fiduciary duties to Huntershill by acting in competition with Huntershill, and soliciting and diverting its clientele to Thaba Thala. A colleague provided Harvey with Niland’s Facebook login details. This enabled Harvey to access Niland’s Facebook account without Niland’s permission. Harvey then downloaded Niland’s Facebook communications which showed that Niland had been actively soliciting Huntershill’s clientele and diverting them to Thaba Thala.
Harvey then brought an urgent application to interdict Niland from soliciting Hunterhill’s clientele on the basis that these solicitations were causing financial and reputational damage to Huntershill. Niland argued that the communications had to be struck out because they infringed his right to privacy and were obtained through the commission of an offence under s 86(1) of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002. A central issue before the court was whether the Facebook communications unlawfully obtained by Harvey could be admitted.
The court dismissed Niland’s claim to privacy and held that the hacked posts, while revealing duplicitous conduct on Harvey’s part, were essential to Harvey’s case and could not in practice have been procured in another lawful way. In the circumstances Niland’s appeal to privacy rang hollow and would need to be overridden by the public interest that his deceitful conduct be exposed. This meant that the evidence illegally obtained by Harvey was admissible and Niland’s application to strike the evidence out was dismissed.
Of interest to attorneys
and their clients is the court’s reasoning in this case. The court explained
- At common law, the rule is that all relevant evidence is admissible unless rendered inadmissible by an exclusionary rule. However, that rule is not absolute: the court has a discretion to exclude unlawfully obtained evidence.
- In deciding whether to exclude unlawfully obtained evidence or to admit it, the court will have to regard to the following factors:
- Privacy, like other rights, is not absolute. As a person moves into communal relations and activities such as business and social interaction, the scope of personal space shrinks. This diminished personal space does not mean that once people are involved in social interactions or business, they no longer have a right to privacy. What it means is that the right is attenuated, not obliterated, depending on how far one has strayed from the inner sanctum of the home.
- Is the matter before the court a criminal or a civil matter? In criminal proceedings, an accused has a right against self-incrimination and to silence. The accused is therefore not obliged to disclose his defence, or to assist the state to prove its case by providing it with any documents that may strengthen its case. On the other hand, in a civil case, a party is not only obliged to disclose his case, he is also obliged to discover all documents which may damage his own case or which may directly or indirectly enable his adversary to advance his case.
- The upshot of this distinction between civil and criminal cases is that in a civil case, if the evidence involved is the type of evidence which the litigant would or should eventually obtain through lawful means (e.g. discovery) had he known about it, the court will likely admit it, especially in cases (such as this one) where the applicant would not otherwise been able to lay his hands on it.
It would appear from obiter dicta of the court in Harvey v Niland that the right to privacy is more limited when one uses a social media platform such as Facebook to issue certain communications. The person issuing those communications cannot expect to rely on the violation of his/her privacy if those communications are then brought to light, whether the communications were obtained legally or illegally.