Kristina Cheremisina on Current Issues of Emoji Usage

Emojis in Legal Practice: Communication and Challenges

Emojis, emotional symbols that have become an integral part of modern communication, are now actively making their way into the legal sphere. At first glance, they offer an additional mean of expressing emotions and understanding within the context of professional discussions and documentation. However, their use is also accompanied by challenges and potential misunderstandings that lawyers must consider.

With the growth of online communication, emojis have become an integral part of how people interact. Emojis can significantly enhance communication between lawyers, clients, and colleagues by adding an emotional nuance to messages and reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings. For example, using “📅” to denote deadlines or “✅” to confirm an agreement can make messages clearer and more expressive. However, the use of emojis can be double-edged. On one hand, they can help participants in the legal process better understand each other’s emotional state and reduce conflicts. On the other hand, improper use of emojis can lead to disputes.

Incorporating emojis into legal documentation can be an effective way to reduce text volume and improve comprehension. For instance, “📝” can be used in place of the word “document,” making the text more concise. However, it is essential to remember that emoji usage should be consistent and understood by all participants in the process. It’s important to maintain clarity and precision. Using emojis instead of formal terms or definitions could lead to challenges in legal documentation.

By examining judicial precedents, we can see how the interpretation of emojis influences the legal landscape. In 2019, the district court of Perm (Russia) mentioned the “money bag emoji (💰)” in a verdict (Verdict No. 1-144/2019 of July 8, 2019, in case No. 1-144/2019 :: The judge stated that through this emoji, one of the accused conveyed to the victim the «need to prepare 1 million rubles in the coming days for transfer to an unknown employee of the Russian Federal Tax Service (IFNS)».  Instead of transferring the money, the victim contacted law enforcement agencies. Consequently, the sender of the message was sentenced to 2 years of imprisonment.

Let’s consider another case where emojis played a significant role: Canada, Saskatchewan, 2023 (South West Terminal Ltd. v. Achter Land, 2023 SKKB 116, CanLII). A company buying agricultural products from farmers informed its counterparts in March 2021 that they wanted to purchase a batch of flax seeds to be delivered in November. One of the farmers responded to the message, and after phone negotiations, the company sent a draft contract along with a text message that read, «Please confirm the flax contract». The farmer responded with a text message consisting of the «thumbs up emoji» (👍).

The company believed they had concluded a contract for the supply of flax with the farmer, but the contract was not executed. In response to the company’s claims, the farmer stated that he had not signed any contract with the company, and the emoji only indicated the receipt of the message. As acknowledged by both parties, they had previously concluded contracts in a somewhat similar manner. The company have sent the farmer a draft contract and asked him to «confirm the contract», and the farmer have responded with «OK», «Yes», or «Looks good». Subsequently, the contracts were successfully executed by both parties.

First, the judge consulted an online emoji dictionary and found that the «thumbs up emoji» is used to denote «agreement, approval, or encouragement». Then, the judge discussed the practice of the parties’ mutual relationships, as they had previously concluded contracts in a similar manner. Based on all this, the judge concluded that the farmer did, in fact, intend to conclude the contract and awarded the company damages caused by the non-performance of the contract.

On June 29, 2023, the Fifteenth Arbitration Appeal Court recognized emojis as equivalent to a signature in a document. In March 2022, an entrepreneur from Rostov-on-Don was supposed to deliver a retrofitted Volkswagen van to a customer. According to the contract, both parties recognized the legal force of documents, including those received via mail or in one of the messengers. The buyer paid an advance of 480,000 rubles. The color scheme of the van was to be approved through an additional agreement. However, the color was discussed in a messenger app. In response to the proposal, the customer replied with the «raised hand with a big thumb up» emoji.

The van was not delivered on time, and the customer demanded a refund of the advance. The supplier then cited the fact that the color of the van was not agreed upon. The court, in turn, deemed the emoji sufficient to confirm the agreements.

With the advancement of technology and social media, emojis can become part of evidence in legal cases. For example, messages containing threats accompanied by corresponding emojis may be considered as aggressive behavior. Evaluating emojis in the context of a case requires professional expertise and analysis.

Considering the complexity of interpreting emojis in legal cases, there is a need for developing standards and ethical recommendations. Lawyers and courts may face the need to establish a methodology for assessing and using emojis in various contexts.

It’s essential to remember that emojis can have different interpretations in different cultures and contexts. For example, “🤞” may signify luck in one situation and a request in another. Lawyers should be especially cautious when using emojis in legal documents and within the context of legal cases. The interpretation of texts containing emojis follows general principles of interpretation, similar to those used when interpreting regular text. The key aspect is understanding the message as an ordinary reader would, taking into account all circumstances and context. When analyzing messages with emojis, it’s necessary to consider not only the “dictionary” meaning of the symbols but also the full message context, preceding messages, subsequent behavior of the parties, and their customary communication practices.

Using emojis in legal practice can be a valuable mean of communication, but it requires caution and attention to context. Potential misunderstandings and legal consequences should be taken into account. Developing standards and ethical norms for emoji use in the legal field can help to mitigate risks and ensure clearer interpretation. Emojis are a powerful tool of expressiveness that demands a balanced and professional approach within the legal work.