Published on: June 15, 2011

Two years after an Australian lawyer caused a stir by sending a foreclosure notice via Facebook, the practice of online legal service is spreading as a means for courts to keep their dockets moving.

A court in Australia has approved the use of Facebook to notify a couple that they lost their home after defaulting on a loan.  The Australian Court approved the request to use Facebook to serve the legally-binding foreclosure documents after several failed attempts to contact the couple at the house and by e-mail.

The U.S. may not be far behind in using the world’s most popular social-networking service to avoid having cases stall when people can’t be located and served in person.  There are people who exist only online.  Being able to serve documents by social-media networks would be a useful tool.

While Facebook Inc. is under regulatory and legal scrutiny in many countries including the U.S. for failing to protect its 694 million users’ data, privacy advocates said that serving court notices by mail or in person often already provokes privacy complaints. Therefore using Facebook doesn’t raise any new issues.  There are going to be privacy concerns, but in some respects they’re almost inescapable. Someone is going to be subject to legal service, even though they may not be happy about it. But if they are properly notified the law’s primary concern is addressed whether the notice arrived via Facebook or not.  It seems only logical now that tools like Facebook or Twitter may be used to contact people who can’t be traced using traditional means.  Such efforts don’t violate personal privacy.  However, in the condominium world, if it involves collection of a debt, it could possibly be a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, as it could result in the notification of third parties of the debt.

Some lawyers say it would be helpful if our courts allowed the practice, and privacy experts don’t see it as a concern because U.S. court documents are already public.  The challenge would be to collect enough proof to convince a court the accountholder is the right person and the page is checked often enough to ensure it’s a fair path of notification. This would need to be done without violating ethics codes that would prevent lawyers from “friending” the target under false pretenses to get past security settings.