news comment: Access to justice cannot be a popularity contest
Crowd Justice is a new organisation which aims to use a crowdfunding platform to raise money to support legal cases. Is this the future of access to justice, or just a gimmick for drumming up cash for one-off cases with a good media profile?
Crowdfunding is used to raise money for business ventures as well as good causes. Funding Circle is an example of a very successful peer-to-peer site that raises loans for small and medium-sized businesses on which investors can expect a 6.7 per cent return.
Julia Salasky, a former City solicitor who subsequently worked as a lawyer for the UN, is CrowdJustice’s founder. She is an enthusiastic advocate for the use of web-based innovation to provide better access to justice. Her website allows people to donate money to the costs of bringing a case, but, Salasky explains, their contributions will not usually be recoverable. She envisages that people will use the platform to reach out to their communities, asking them to back their case as a good cause.
CrowdJustice takes a small fee for processing a donation. According to Salasky, they ‘do not envisage making money in the start-up phase’, but merely ‘want to show that it can work’. Any surplus from the platform will be donated to the Access to Justice Foundation charity.
Potential cases for CrowdJustice will be vetted by volunteer lawyers. Its first featured case concerns a former employee of the oil company BP in Colombia. Gilberto Torres claims he was kidnapped and tortured in revenge for his stance against the company’s human rights violations and environmental abuses. Deighton Pierce Glynn is taking his case on a conditional fee basis, but successfully raised the £5,000 needed for disbursements, including court fees and translation costs, via CrowdJustice. However, Torres was lucky enough to have his case and innovative use of CrowdJustice to fund it featured on the Guardian website.
LAG believes the Torres case demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of crowdfunding in raising cash for litigation. With the right type of story behind it, the power of social media can be harnessed to raise money for a good cause. It’s doubtful, though, whether a more run-of-the-mill civil case, such as a private law family matter, previously funded by legal aid, would elicit such a response. Also, the Torres case illustrates that there is likely to be a limit on what can be raised – £5,000 for disbursements is clearly possible, but the (potentially) tens of thousands necessary to cover lawyers’ fees in cases which aren’t being run on conditional fee might be too much of a stretch.
Ultimately, while CrowdJustice is an imaginative initiative that seeks to harness online communities to support litigants, it risks reducing access to justice to a post-LASPO game show – a sort of Britain’s Got Justice. LAG believes that enforcing a citizen’s rights should be predicated on more than just the hope that their plight touches a nerve with the public.