The growing phenomenon that is crowdfunding has been used to raise money for ventures from artistic enterprise to personal causes and entrepreneurial endeavour. A plethora of web sites host the various good causes – IndiGoGo, Kickstarter and Crowdfunder – to name but a few.
A campaign by the Metropolitan Police Federation to raise £250,000 for the family of PC Keith Palmer, the officer murdered in the Westminster attack last week, received more than twice its target in less than a day. While an Arsenal fan is considering crowdfunding to raise £904 million to buy the football club from its American owner, Stan Kroenke.
Crowdfunding has spread to the law, with would-be litigants seeking contributions from others to pay their court fees and lawyers’ bills – a practice historically referred to as maintenance and that only 50 years ago was illegal. It has been used in some of the most ground-breaking and momentous cases, including the Peoples’ Challenge to the government over the process for leaving the European Union following the Brexit referendum vote and in the intervention by campaign group, JENGbA, in the Jogee case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the courts had, for the last 30 years, wrongly interpreted the law on joint enterprise.
Recently two men with terminal illnesses have individually launched appeals to fund their challenges to the UK’s ban on assisted dying – Noel Conway did it through Crowdfunder and Omid T through CrowdJustice, with the help of law firm Bindmans.
Barry Beavis, the owner of the Happy Haddock fish and chip shop in Essex, hit the headlines in 2015 when he appealed via website IndieGoGo to raise £8,500 to take his challenge over an £85 parking fine to the Supreme Court.
He raised the funds in less than 48 hours. ‘Parking fines are a very emotive subject. It was the first time that a parking case had gone to the Supreme Court and there was a great deal of interest in it so I didn’t think it would too difficult to raise the funds,’ says Beavis.
The process was simple, but he said the challenge was to make people aware of what he was doing and to get the message across simply and clearly. ‘I used Twitter and Facebook and other campaigning and consumer groups were quick to help get the message out – so I was able to raise awareness,’ he says.
Those who backed his cause were all individuals, with the exception of one commercial organisation. ‘Most of the money came from hundreds of small donations – £1, £2, a fiver or a tenner from people who felt the same passion about the issue as I did,’ he recalls.
‘To achieve an application at the Supreme Court, which costs £4,500, would be unachievable unless you have a bottomless pit of cash. My choices were to stump up £8.5k myself or find a way to fund it.’
But crowdfunding was only part of the solution. Where they have used it, litigants remain liable for the lawyers’ fees and the costs of the other side if they lose.
‘I could only take the case because I had received an undertaking as to costs from the other side,’ he explains. And he was represented at court pro bono by Hardwick Chambers’ barrister, John de Waal QC.
Former Linklaters’ solicitor, Julia Salasky set up the website for legal crowdfunder CrownJustice just over 18 months ago. The site is open to potential litigants who already have a lawyer in place. They set a target amount to raise and monies are only taken from donors if the target amount is received. CrowdJustice charges an administration fee of 5% of the target amount and the credit card company charges a processing fee.
Since its launch, CrowdJustice has secured around £2.8 million to fund about 150 cases, and the initiative has recently crossed the pond to help challenges to Donald Trump’s travel ban.
Donors, says Salasky, are almost exclusively individuals who have donated from £5 and odd rare occasions as mush as £1,000. It is rare, she says, to get organisations or law firms donating, although that did happen in the campaign run by the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE).
‘Law firms and law centres donated to fill a funding gap at ISCRE to enable it to keep its discrimination advice service open,’ she explains.
‘We’d love to see law firm offer matched funding, but the power is in lots of small donations from people from all walks of life,’ she adds.
Which begs the question of whether it is right for potential litigants to have to resort to asking family, friends and members of the public to stump up to fund legal challenges against state bodies.
Successive cuts to legal aid have left access to the courts out of reach of the majority of people, unless they are poor enough to remain eligible or rich enough not to need it. Does crowdfunding merely let the government off its duty to provide access to justice and encourage it to make even deeper funding cuts?
Salasky insists: ‘That’s the wrong way to look at it. Crowdfunding enables people to get funding who otherwise would not be able to. Legal aid is and always should be a fall back for the most vulnerable.
‘Crowdfunding is bigger than that – it enables people to feel they are getting support from their community and makes the community feel they are part of the justice system, which might otherwise be inaccessible to them.’
And that, she adds, is ‘way more empowering than going to the government to beg for legal aid’.
Gloria Morrison, campaign coordinator at JENGbA, says: ‘With justice and legal issues you shouldn’t have to raise money, but that’s the world we live in.’
Morrison says: ‘We could have got lawyers to the work pro bono, but we didn’t want to – we wanted to have ownership of what we were doing and wanted to pay the lawyers, who had been working for us pro bono for years.’
She found the process stressful and time-consuming, but an effective way to highlight an important issue. ‘When you have a cause and know you’re in the right, it’s easy to get people to support you,’ she says.
Which raises the question of whether deserving yet unpopular and meritorious causes go unfunded, and parties remain denied access to justice.
So long as there is someone to promote it and make use of all their networks from church groups to social media, Sakasky does not think so. ‘The case does not have to be heart-rending or a really sexy constitutional one, like the Brexit intervention. The real driver of success is when people put the effort in to spreading the word. It is about telling the story and communicating it to as many people as possible.’
Salsky would like to see crowdfunding become ubiquitous among lawyers when advising clients of their funding options. ‘It’s a win, win – a way for people to take their cases and for lawyers to get paid for work that they can’t do pro bono.’
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