Crowdfunding has become a well-known way for many to accumulate capital for a project. Whether it’s a small start-up company, a musical prodigy funding their education or someone’s family needing to pay medical expenses, the internet has created a great platform for soliciting your cause. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s also been benefiting those needing to finance legal cases. But is it a worthwhile approach to legal funding, and is there a future in it?
Katie Smith, a GDL student at The University of Law Birmingham, has delved into the world of CrowdJustice to give an insight into what it’s all about and how it might evolve in the future of legal funding.
Crowdfunding is a simple idea; a system of raising funds through a ‘crowd’ of people, typically achieved through targeted campaigns – usually online via websites like Kickstarter and Gofundme – which look to generate donations to bankroll a particular project. In this way, usually for a commission or fee, these third party platforms bring together the person or group who have an idea they want to fund and the people across the world who want to support it.
It’s been used as a source of alternative finance in a wide range of areas, such as arts and creative projects, charity and community initiatives and other entrepreneurial ventures. In recent years, awareness of crowdfunding in the legal world has been raised through a number of high profile cases, such as the Charlie Gard case, where Charlie’s parents used Gofundme to finance their legal case against Great Ormond Street.
This trend has led to the emergence of specially targeted online legal platforms. An example of this is CrowdJustice; a platform specifically designed to help clients with limited resources raise funds for legal action. According to its website, so far CrowdJustice has raised over £10million from more than 200,000 individual backers. Its stated aim is to help raise funds for all kinds of cases, from those of national, constitutional significance to local cases which impact only one individual or a community.
A couple of notable examples of successful CrowdJustice funded cases are R v Miller – the successful challenge brought by Gina Miller and others against the British Government in respect of Parliament’s role in the Brexit negotiations – and the challenge by a group of junior doctors to proposed changes in their employment terms by the Secretary of State for Health.
As such, CrowdJustice sees its role as ‘empowering’ practising lawyers, allowing clients to remain in control and have a voice over significant legal issues. It aims to do this by raising the profile of cases registered on the website so they can secure funding. Simply put, how it works is that a lawyer must be instructed before the case can go live and then the funds raised are paid directly into the relevant firm’s client account. If a case has surplus funds, backers can redirect their funds to an alternative campaign or contribute to the Access to Justice Foundation.
Off the back of what’s changed in legal financing, crowdfunding seems particularly important in an era where legal aid funding has been reduced. However, there are criticisms of the approach.
Some would argue that, like pro bono, the generosity of strangers should not be thought of as a replacement for a publicly funded justice system. Indeed, the founder of CrowdJustice, Julia Salasky (a former Linklaters solicitor) told the Law Gazette that CrowdJustice should not be seen as a replacement for legal aid but could provide a platform for people to “share their story” where they cannot afford to bring a case but no legal aid is available.
It could also be argued that the growth of crowdfunding campaigns risk replacing valued initial legal advice about the honest prospects of a case with an online popularity contest. This means that lawyers could be faced with the possibility of advising on funded cases with limited legal merit. Conversely, cases with strong legal merit may be overlooked if they’re not as headline friendly or ‘marketed’ in the right way online, therefore not attracting the required attention. This means that clients with strong profiles or networks may have higher prospects of success than those who do not have these benefits.
Moreover, crowdfunding could be said to generate a potential clash against a legal system built around client confidentiality and the modern internet age of mass information. Campaigning to gain public momentum could open up the potential for outside influence and insensitivity. In the Charlie Gard case, for example, the disputes over medical treatment generated intense media coverage in already challenging circumstances. This led to the Judge in the case specifically saying in court that he would judge on the basis of the evidence and not on the basis of tweets or statements to the press.
Nonetheless, working alongside legal aid and pro bono crowdfunding can be seen as an innovative and empowering approach to accessing justice and one which gives a face to legal problems which previously may have remained uncovered. Julia Salasky told the Legal Gazette that CrowdJustice provides a platform for people to share humanistic and compelling stories that are not ‘too legalistic’. In that way, although crowdfunding uses the modern framework of the Internet to connect people, the concept of community giving and the attraction of feeling involved in engaging stories is already well ingrained in our culture, and likely to continue to develop for years to come.
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