Blog | The kindness of strangers

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Crowdfunding shows how access to justice can be reinvented for financially strained times, writes Jean-Yves Gilg

3 February 2017

Julia Salasky was aiming to launch the US arm of CrowdJustice, the crowdfunding platform she founded just over a year and half ago, in the middle of February. The events that followed Donald Trump’s executive order, banning migrants from a number of countries designated as mostly Muslim from entering the US, have pushed the date forward.

Tareq and Ammar Aziz flew into Dulles airport from Yemen at the end of January with a view to joining their father, a US citizen, in Michigan. They were turned away and deported to Ethopia.

After securing representation from Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center, the brothers raised their initial $15,000 pledge within a day. They are now halfway through raising a further $60,000 ‘stretch’ pledge. The news at the time of writing is that the US authorities may be working on re-instating their visas.

The Aziz brothers’ application is emblematic of CrowdJustice’s ethos. Salasky, a former Linklaters lawyer who then went on to work for the UN, set up the site in May 2015 as a platform to provide access to justice for applicants looking for funding. The project was born in a post-LASPO world of legal aid cuts and government attempts to constrain judicial review applications.

Their first case, Torres v BP, pitted an engineer for oil company BP – and trade unionist – against big business and governments in the UK and Colombia. Torres was represented by well-known civil liberties lawyers: Deighton Pierce Glynn’s Sue Willman and Dan Carey, and Matrix Chambers’ Richard Hermer QC, who was involved in the Trafigura litigation. The campaign met its fundraising target of £5,000 but the case ended in October last year after Torres was advised to discontinue.

CrowdJustice has since funded a number of high-profile cases, ranging from the recent Miller case, on whether parliament should be involved in the process of triggering Brexit, to the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ case brought by Liberty and the Civil Liberties Trust against the Investigatory Powers Act.

But it’s also being used by local people to fight local campaigns. Victoria Street residents in Southwold are using the site to fund a judicial review of a planning permission authorising Adnams, the brewery, to extend its car park. In Camden, Somers Town Neighbourhood Forum is hoping to stall the building of a luxury tower block. And in Essex, the daughter of an elderly dementia patient who died shortly after being removed from her privately run care home has secured funding for a case that will determine the extent of the protection under the Human Rights Act in such cases.

Is it a realistic substitute to traditional public funding? Of course not. It’s a brave initiative and, in some way, it should not have been necessary. In the current funding climate, however, it is a much-needed funding option.

It is also possible to take issue with the charitable premise of the project. It relies entirely on the generosity of donors, who on average give £35. And unlike professional litigation funders looking for a return, pledgers make no money. The only parties benefiting financially are CrowdJustice, which takes a 5 per cent fee, and the lawyers.

You could also argue that some of these cases could be done pro bono. Perhaps of the smaller applications could, but the pro bono ecosystem is stretched to the point that villagers seeking to protect green space from development will be at the end of the queue, with priority given – rightly – to housing tenants threatened with eviction. Meanwhile, CFA rules now make it more and more difficult to pursue large or group compensation claims, pushing more people down the judicial review route.

Sometimes justice, law, and politics get closely entangled. This is especially so with judicial reviews. You may feel no affinity with the campaigning element behind a lot of the CrowdJustice cases, but this initiative shows how access to justice can be reinvented for financially strained times.

@jeanyvesgilg

This blog was first published on Solicitors Journal on 3 February 2017 and is reproduced by kind permission

 

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