Crowdfunding catches on to fund judicial reviews

There are a number of benefits to seeking small amounts of money from members of the public to pay for legal action, writes Patrick McCurry.

Junior doctors among many to use crowdfunding
Junior doctors among many to use crowdfunding

Pressure groups are increasingly using crowdfunding to pay for judicial reviews - from the angry commuters challenging the train company Southern Rail to the attempt by junior doctors to overturn the government's new imposed contract.

Some charities, too, have used the mechanism to pay for legal action. These include the Law Centres Network, the Humanist Society Scotland and the Ipswich and Suffolk Commission for Racial Equality. The human rights charity the AIRE Centre used crowdfunding earlier this year to fund the early stages of a judicial review challenging the government on its deportation of EU nationals.

Audrey Cherryl Mogan, legal project manager at AIRE, says: "We're a small charity and we wouldn't have been able to raise the money needed without crowdfunding."

Crowdfunding is a mechanism through which many people pledge small amounts of money online and have to pay only if the target is achieved. A charity can organise it internally, if it has the infrastructure, or use a third-party provider.

A judicial review may be sought by a charity that wants to challenge a decision by a regulatory body, such as the Charity Commission, or as part of strategic litigation on behalf of beneficiaries.

But seeking a judicial review has become riskier since the introduction of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015. Under the act, orders to cap the costs an unsuccessful claimant would have to pay to a defendant are now available only after the judicial review has been granted.

Many legal or campaigning charities have sought judicial reviews as a way of challenging decisions by public authorities. It is also possible that judicial reviews by charities will become more important from this month when the Charity Commission receives new powers to issue official warnings, which can't be appealed in the charity tribunal.

Melanie Carter, head of the public and regulatory law department at the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, says: "There is a large group of people out there interested in engaging with the kinds of civil society issues that judicial reviews might represent, and crowdfunding allows a charity to get its message to these people."

AIRE's Mogan agrees: "Crowdfunding helped to raise awareness of our work. A lot of people got in touch with me to find out about what we do as a result of the crowdfunding initiative."

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BWB's Carter says charities should not underestimate the value of strategic litigation and, particularly in today's climate of tighter austerity, judicial review might become a process to which charities increasingly turn in order to protect their beneficiaries.

She says one of the benefits of crowdfunding judicial reviews is that the charity is not committed to the course of action until, and unless, it raises what it has set out to raise. According to Carter, unless it has pro bono legal support an organisation needs to raise between £10,000 and £20,000 for the early stages of a judicial review and from £50,000 to £100,000 for a full hearing.

Julia Salasky, founder of the online crowdfunding platform CrowdJustice, says it is important that charities check their founding documents allow them to fundraise for litigation, but for most charities that should not be a problem.

She adds: "It also enables charities to engage with the legal process in a way they might not have been able to do previously and to spread their message to a broader audience through social media."

According to Mahsa Mohseni, the lead fundraiser at the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees, crowdfunding is particularly valuable for smaller charities: "Bigger organisations might find it more economic to launch their own appeals on their websites, but for small groups using a third-party crowdfunding platform makes a lot of sense. It also allows donors to see exactly where their money is going."

Salasky of CrowdJustice agrees that crowdfunding can help a charity to build relationships with potential new supporters. "It's a way for people to fund specific challenges with specific outcomes, rather than donating for general charitable purposes," she says.

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