When online crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe debuted, people hoping to invent and sell a better bottle opener, those in need of help with medical bills and all sorts of personal would-be fundraisers talked about the concept in grand, world-changing ways. This, they said, was a disruptive, potentially transformative financial development.
A new website aims to mash up that kind of popular Internet fundraising with legal work, hoping to turn legal cases into publicly funded — and backed — social causes.
CrowdJustice.org, went live with its first U.S. fundraising appeals in recent weeks with a tagline meant to promote equal access to the courts, regardless of one's economic standing: "The law should be available to everyone."
The site’s founder, a British transplant, says CrowdJustice is a politically neutral portal where people and organizations pursuing litigation can solicit and win public help with the costs. So far, CrowdJustice has helped fund an assortment of cases, including a lawsuit fighting a multistory car park in Berkhamsted, England, and one trying to quash Brexit. But, just weeks after the site opened to U.S. causes, CrowdJustice, or at least it’s marketing plan, appears to set it on a collision course with one of the Trump administration’s signature policies: the travel ban.
In the past few weeks, the story of the Aziz brothers — Yemenis detained at Washington Dulles International Airport then shipped out of the country because of President Trump's temporary seven-country travel ban — appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian. Their journey across continents and the legal wrangling required to get the them back inside the United States seemed to many an exemplar of what Trump's executive order wrought. It's also an example of how CrowdJustice might fit into the nation's increasingly active public-interest law space.
Just after Trump's executive order, CrowdJustice posted a description of Aziz v. Trump — the case that ultimately helped the Aziz brothers and at least one other family enter the United States on Monday morning. The case, brought by the Legal Aid Justice Center, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit group with a small staff, focused on people turned away from Dulles Airport immediately after the travel ban went into effect. Virginia's attorney general and other litigators later joined the case. A separate but related case in Seattle temporarily halted the ban, and a federal appeals court Thursday night kept the ban on hold, perhaps setting up a U.S. Supreme Court fight.
The Center doesn’t charge clients, relying instead on donations. Sometimes, the organization can persuade a federal court to pay the agency legal fees, which range from $275 to $450 an hour. But the organization faces the same travel costs, court filing fees and other expenses as do lawyers working for major civil rights organizations or corporate clients.
"We are committed to this work," said Mary Bauer, executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center who agreed to have the Aziz v. Trump case posted on CrowdJustice. "But there are costs, and we are not the ACLU. So we did not see $24 million in donations when this all started."
During the campaign’s first week on CrowdJustice, the Center raised $36,600 in pledges from 650 people, an average of $56 per donation.
That, to politicos accustomed to working with multimillionaire backers, might not sound like much money. But to Neil Weare, president and founder of the We the People Project, a D.C.-based voting rights organization, CrowdJustice carries the capacity to resolve two of the organization’s biggest challenges.
That’s fundraising and what Weare called the awareness gap.
In 2015, We the People filed a lawsuit on behalf of six plaintiffs, U.S. citizens who once lived in Illinois but have since moved to Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico and as a result do not get to participate in all aspects of federal elections. There are approximately 4 million U.S. citizens in a similar position, living in the three territories mentioned in the lawsuit along with Washington and American Samoa.
“A lot of Americans don’t even know that the United States has territories,” Weare said. Nor do they know that the millions of U.S. citizens living in them “do not have the same rights to vote as everyone else.”
A federal district court in Illinois ruled against We the People before the 2016 election and declared that voting is “not a fundamental right.” So lawyers working for the organization free of charge took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, arguing the case raised potentially significant national questions about voting and equality.
The same year the lawsuit was filed, John Oliver's HBO show included a segment on territorial voting rights, which was viewed on YouTube more than 6.4 million times. And, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has since lambasted restrictions on territorial voters in a Senate committee hearing. Both helped, Weare said.
This week, We the People posted a CrowdJustice appeal seeking to raise $10,000 to help with the case, Segovia v. Board of Election Commissioners, which seeks voting rights for a U.S. military veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and now lives in Guam. In its first few days, the campaign has raised more than $7,000 from 74 people.
Continuous attention-grabbing is part of the work, and money a sheer necessity, Weare said.
CrowdJustice began in the Britain in 2014, but moved its headquarters to New York this year with a plan to launch U.S. operations. CrowdJustice moved its launch up two weeks to post the Aziz v. Trump case. The company dispatched people well-known in the nonprofit-organization world to gain word-of-mouth among public-interest lawyers.
Also, despite its dot.org URL, CrowdJustice is not a nonprofit organization. It collects 5 percent of all donations made to legal cases and another 3.5 percent goes to the website’s payment processor. The remaining 91.5 percent of donations goes to trust accounts set up to fund the individual cases to which donors contribute.
CrowdJustice does some due diligence to ensure none of the parties to the lawsuit are subject to any kind of national or international sanctions (such as Securities and Exchange Commission violations, federal or international court matters) and verifies that the case in question is under active litigation by a licensed attorney. Then, it posts a campaign.
Julia Salasky, chief executive and founder of CrowdJustice, describes the site as “politically agnostic” and only interested in helping people engage in the legal system. When asked whether CrowdJustice, might, for instance, post a fundraising effort for a white supremacist group, Salasky said the company has not yet confronted a case the site deemed inappropriate.
Third-party litigation finance — such as crowdsourcing — is a relatively new field, one that has emerged within the past decade, said Bruce Hay, a Harvard law professor who specializes in procedures and ethics. In the past three years, Hay said, he has seen some of his students graduate and become litigation financiers focused on corporate cases, not public-interest law and nonprofit causes. Regulators and courts have been generally accepting of the practice, so long as firewalls are established to keep the financiers out of decisions lawyers must make, Hay said.
Before such funding practices, lawyers sometimes took out bank loans to finance cases, Hay said. Nonprofit groups doing public-interest legal work had no other choice but to dedicate significant time to fundraising. CrowdJustice could provide another option to people with limited resources who want to pursue cases that deal with constitutional questions but promise no payout.
CrowdJustice could face another challenge in the Trump era that has roots in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Then, officials in Southern states attempted to crush the NAACP's legal successes by bringing cases against the organization under anti-ambulance-chasing laws. Such laws are intended to prevent baseless, nuisance lawsuits, but officials instead tried to stop the NAACP from finding clients. They wanted to thwart efforts seeking to move the nation toward equity in voting, housing, jobs, transportation and other matters, Hay said.
"It will be interesting to see if we see a return to fake legal ethics claims, when someone tries to, say, crowdfund a case to block voter suppression," Hay said.
One item of potential interest to the Trump administration right now: In early November, CrowdJustice donations totaling more than $200,000, at the current exchange rate, allowed a group of 4,918 people to challenge a referendum that provided the legal basis for Britain to exit the European Union, according to the company's figures. A lawsuit filed by people opposed to Brexit pushed to give Parliament the final say. They won.
Parliament is expected to vote on the British-E.U. divorce sometime this year.