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The legal significance of emojis

A bulging aubergine; a snowflake; a cheerful pile of poo… Emojis have come to occupy a dominant role in modern-day communication, whether their meaning is innocuous or otherwise. 

But now they appear to be enjoying a new lease of life and even taking on legal significance with increasing appearances in court cases in the UK and US.

What has been happening in the courts?

It emerged this week that a handwritten document “signed with a smiley face” by the soul singer Aretha Franklin constitutes a valid will, according to The Times. Created in 2014, it was found years afterwards under a sofa cushion. Her sons had been fighting over which of two handwritten notes should take precedence in the absence of any formal, typed instructions. 

Meanwhile in Canada, a judge has ruled that a thumbs-up emoji was “as binding as a signature” in a dispute over a contract between a grain buyer and a farmer, reported Yahoo Finance. During the case, Justice Timothy Keene turned to the dictionary for a definition of what a thumbs-up emoji meant, and as a result, ruled that the farmer was in breach of contract for failing to deliver the grain.  

Justice Keene said that the thumbs-up emoji was used to express assent, approval or encouragement in digital communications. “I am not sure how authoritative that is but this seems to comport with my understanding from my everyday use – even as a latecomer to the world of technology,” he said. 

This isn’t the first time that emojis have made an appearance in legal proceedings. The poo emoji first popped up in a legal case in the US in 2018, according to Sarah Jeong in The Verge, “long before [Elon] Musk’s tweet of the poop emoji as evidence of his public disparagement of the company” when Twitter sued him in 2022. 

In a recent example in California, meanwhile, a man accused of pimping prostitutes allegedly sent an Instagram message to a woman that read “teamwork makes the dream work”; a seemingly innocuous phrase but one that “took on new significance when accompanied by a high heels and money bag emoji”, said The Times. The prosecution argued that the emojis hinted at a working relationship; the defendant suggested that his intentions had been purely romantic.

In China, judiciaries have logged 158 lawsuits that recognised emojis, known as biaoqingbao in Chinese, and other online expressions as evidence in the past five years, according to Sixth Tone. Bizarrely, a court in the southern city of Shenzhen recognised a response using a sun emoji as an “endorsement of extending the lease in a rental dispute”. 

Have emojis appeared in court in the UK? 

Emojis are also increasingly appearing in British criminal, family and employment law hearings, with judges often unaware of their alternative meanings, such as the use of a snowflake to represent cocaine, a maple leaf for cannabis, a bath for a coffin, a peach for a bottom or an aubergine for a penis. 

Senior judges have already begun urging the judiciary to familiarise themselves with the subtle and sometimes sinister meanings of emojis, which could influence the outcome of court cases.

Felicity Gerry QC told The Times that there was a risk of emojis being wrongly interpreted by lawyers. “This could impact on the meaning of sexual communications or communications between those accused of plotting murder or terror offences,” she said. 

But a judge wanting to look up the legal precedent for the meaning of a certain emoji in a court case will encounter a major problem. Many experts have pointed out that legal databases omit emojis entirely or transcribe them as an error. “Worse, those databases don’t search-index emoji, meaning you can’t just drop an emoji into a search box and see what happens,” said Sarah Jeong in The Verge. 

“Legal cases turn on how someone understands a sentence, and a single emoji (or lack thereof) can change that drastically,” she added. 

What about in the workplace?

Workplace messaging software Slack reported a huge rise in the use of the heart emoji during the early stages of the pandemic, as colleagues found new ways to show solidarity and support to one another. With more companies offering their employees hybrid working in the wake of the pandemic, people are using less jargon and formal language and more emojis.

In fact, Indian, Chinese and American workers are more likely to find emoji-less texts or messages lacking, compared with global respondents (85%, 74% and 71% respectively, versus 58% globally) while 46% of American workers are comfortable using emojis when communicating with their bosses, according to Slack. 

But as the legal system is finding, emojis in the workplace are still open to misinterpretation. While people in many countries associate the peach emoji with being flirtatious, said Slack, it was interpreted literally by 71% of respondents in Korea, while in China, only 56% of respondents thought the aubergine emoji referred to the actual vegetable.

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