One week ago, Julia Salasky, a former attorney for the United Nations, initiated a Dickensian experiment in jurisprudence in the United Kingdom. She applied the online Kickstarter model to funding “public interest” litigation. Her website CrowdJustice went live May 22. In an interview with TechCrunch, Salasky explained that with “the enormous cuts to legal aid funding [in Britain], and legislation that really undermines people’s ability to challenge government decisions” [it’s become harder than ever] “for normal people, let alone vulnerable people, to access the courts, particularly when there’s an issue of importance but not necessarily a big financial payout at the end.” Crowdfunding for legal causes could provide an answer. As she began to pitch the idea of crowdfunding to other lawyers, Salasky says the response she often got was, “I can’t believe that this doesn’t exist yet.”
Actually, funding others’ lawsuits does exist in the U.K. today, but it’s a for-profit model involving millions of pounds. Joshua Rozenberg of The Guardian explains that not too long ago, supporting someone else’s legal claim for a share of the potential damages in Britain was a crime called champerty. Not so today. Rozenberg says that Harbour Litigation Funding is the largest investor in court claims and has earned £400 million for its efforts. The company doesn’t get involved with suits worth less than £10 million, and it has no appetite for personal injury, divorce, or defamation cases.
Salasky’s CrowdJustice funding involves donors, not investors, and the motivation is a little more high-minded than just cash returns on one’s outlay.
Founder Julia Salasky began her legal career at Linklaters in London, before moving on to work as an attorney for the United Nations in Vienna, Austria, and the Hague, Netherlands. Her website also cites experience at a legal aid clinic in London.
In the About Us section of the website, CrowdJustice is described as a small dedicated team of lawyers and volunteers that offers a totally independent platform with no political or legal affiliations. The company is London-based, and its core method is based on a simple hack of the system (“hack” as in an inelegant but effective solution to a problem).
The corporate philosophy is expressed in a few lines:
“We founded CrowdJustice because we think that accessing the courts shouldn’t just be for those who can afford it. We believe there is enormous power in the community that can be harnessed to achieve legal change.”
Just as with standard KickStarter projects, CrowdJustice presents its projects (court actions) in detail. The incentive to “Back this Project” is presented in the case made by the litigant. The current Case of the Month has supporting documentary evidence from newspapers and televised reports.
But unlike KickStarter Projects, there are no premiums or products offered to entice investors. There’s a time limit to reach the amount needed, but you won’t find a number of paybacks for the different levels of investing—just the way the funds will be used. Here’s the current Case of the Month, Torres v BP. (Click on the image to go to the documentation page for an interesting overview of the case details and the current progress.)
Not all the cases will be this kind of activist vs. international corporation. Salasky and her partners hope that the site will encourage those with local problems to submit their cases. As they explain on their website:
“Sometimes petitions are not enough. The law should be available to everyone, big and small. CrowdJustice gives you the tools to raise funds, mobilise your community and publicise your issue. If you have a case that affects your community or involves a big public issue, get in touch.”
The pledges for funding are made with credit cards, and if the project doesn’t reach its goal within the time period, the cards of those pledging aren’t charged.
WILL IT WORK?
Salasky anticipates that CrowdJustice supporters will be well motivated. “I think the donors will be people who take human rights seriously as a universal obligation, and people who wish to hold companies to account—in particular when these are British companies that we rely on to uphold these values.” Further, she hopes for more permanent results than just individual settlements: “By contributing to court cases, you can often have a real impact on a specific issue. In some cases, you can even contribute to changing the law.”
There are historical examples of this model succeeding to the surprise of many. There was the crowdfunding of a recent U.S. election when $2 and $5 donations by hundreds of thousands proved a match for corporate PACs. There’s the success of many KickStarter projects. And finally, who would have thought Dickens’ undeserving poor, depicted in all those fictional serials, would have affected so much consequent legislation?