JUSTICE BY COLLECTION

Crowdfunding for public-interest lawsuits has come to the US, just in time for Trump’s presidency

Two weeks in, the Trump administration is deluged with lawsuits, from challenges to the president’s conflicts of interest to multiple cases against his travel ban (currently suspended by order of a federal judge). One of those lawsuits has been brought by two Yemeni brothers whose case is being funded by CrowdJustice, a UK crowdfunding platform for lawsuits that launched its US operation this week.

The platform is designed for public-interest cases, making it easier for people to band together in legal fights. Individual contributions add up to cover legal fees, and CrowdJustice helps promote the issue online. The platform’s pitch is simple—justice should be accessible to anyone.

“It’s one step beyond petitions,” said Julia Salasky, the founder of the platform, who is a former United Nations lawyer.

In the UK, CrowdJustice cases are wide-ranging, from the families of three British soldiers killed by IRA gunmen in the 1970s who are raising money to identify and prosecute their killers, to two neighbors in Exeter who are trying to save a local field from being divided by a new road. One case funded on the platform went all the way to the UK Supreme Court, resulting in the ruling that parliament must vote to finalize the country’s departure from the European Union.

CrowdJustice was planning to launch in the US in several weeks, but with the fallout from the immigration executive order, it decided to start early with a campaign to fund Aziz v. Trump.

Tareq and Ammar Aqel Mohammad Aziz arrived at Dulles Airport in Washington, DC on Saturday, Jan. 28. The two Yemeni citizens, aged 21 and 19, were coming to live with their father, who is a US citizen. They were detained at the airport and forced to sign papers that waived their immigration status, according to their lawyers from the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), a small non-profit based in Virginia. Then they were deported.

On Feb. 3 the lawyers announced they had reached an agreement with the US government to bring the Aziz brothers back. But the case isn’t over: The state of Virginia has joined it on behalf of other visa-holders stuck abroad.

Salasky said the launch of CrowdJustice was in the US was in some ways coincidental, and in some serendipitous. “This past weekend in particular has really been a bellwether moment for people feeling disenfranchised and feeling that the legal system is a really important antidote to executive power and a really important part of functioning democracy,” she said.

The LAJC is not a well-known organization like the American Civil Liberties Union, which raised $24 million in donations online the weekend the travel ban went into force. “We haven’t seen the kind of uptick in donations. And so the opportunity to talk about the work that we’re doing….is really important for us,” said Mary Bauer, the LAJC’s head. The case quickly reached its initial target of $15,000, and is now over $35,000 towards a new, $60,000 goal. The funds will go toward paying the organization’s staff.

To crowdfund a case on CrowdJustice, you need to have an attorney who has agreed to represent you. The platform vets the lawyer, and applies a “subjective filter,” as Salasky puts it, to determine whether it should take on the case. (A case wouldn’t make the cut if, for example, it compromised a child’s anonymity, Salasky said.) If you reach your fundraising goal, the money will go straight to the attorney’s account, where it will be held in a trust for the client. The platform takes 5% of the full amount for itself.

Just like third-party financing for lawsuits, crowdfunding legal cases is not a new idea in the US. GoFundMe, a general crowdfunding platform, teems with campaigns to fundraise for legal fees. Other platforms have been built specifically for legal cases. But the purpose of those websites, such as LexShares or Legalist, is for people to invest in lawsuits expecting financial return. This has raised a host of ethical issues, including concerns about third parties interfering in legal cases, particularly after it emerged that Silicon Valley mogul Peter Thiel was financing Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker.

But since CrowdJustice doesn’t promise financial benefit, and the funds are a collection of small donations, Salasky said these types of ethical concerns are “minimal.” “The rewards, incentives and trade-offs in that sphere are much different and are subject to very different rules,” she said.

David Udell, executive director of the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School said that “at a glance, CrowdJustice looks great.” However, he underlined that it doesn’t solve the lack of access to justice—an acute problem in America, where there is less than one civil legal-aid lawyer per 10,000 US citizens. These lawyers provide crucial help to the poor who face eviction, child custody battles or rent disputes.

“It can come to the rescue for select cases that are portrayable in ways that tug at the heartstrings or alarm the public,” he said. “Third-party funding is an important complement to government-funded free civil legal aid, but for the large number of people with genuine unmet legal needs, the critically important thing is to preserve and expand free civil legal aid.”

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