Jolyon Maugham (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Bad Law Project?

The good, the bad, and the ugly of crowdfunding legal cases

Most people on being told by a court that their claim ‘failed in its entirety’ would presumably recognise defeat. Not so for Jolyon Maugham, Director of the Good Law Project who raised nearly £400K from private individuals to bring a legal action that failed. Donors were emailed in decidedly jaunty terms, declaring victory – We Won! – and when Maugham was challenged about this novel reframing of defeat, he doubled down, calling the loss ‘deeply technical’.

This episode raises some interesting questions about crowdfunding for legal actions, which are inherently uncertain, and the extent to which a sober assessment of risks and benefits ought to be communicated to donors.

The modern crowdfunding model has a project that needs funding, individuals who want to contribute and the online platform that brings the two together. The first UK website to crowdfund legal public interest cases – Crowdjustice – launched in 2015, set up by former solicitor Julia Salasky. To submit a case, parties must have legal representation. They set the target they require and the site charges a fee of 5% of the funds raised.

Given the eye watering amounts of money it costs to bring any civil action to court, there is no doubt that some of the most significant cases of the last few years would never have seen the inside of a court room if litigation remained the preserve of only the State or the independently wealthy private citizen. But as Salaksy makes clear in an article in Counsel Magazine, this isn’t just a case of helping with affordability: many people want to make a difference. 

In Salaksy’s words, “The courts shouldn’t just be for those who can afford it. We believe that there is enormous power in the community that can be harnessed to achieve legal change.”

The court declared that the claim brought by the Good Law Project failed in its entirety

The Good Law Project has had considerable success in galvanising the community to give it money, but correspondingly less success in winning any of its cases. Of course “Law Fare” — the use of legal actions to force change — can have an impact beyond the win/lose binary of court proceedings, but when asking people to part with their money to achieve a certain outcome, there needs to be both clarity about the aim and its likely success. 

As the Labour Pains Blog sets out, since 2017 the Good Law Project has raised £4,228,308 from 44 Crowdjustice crowdfunders. An analysis of the court victories that this sum has secured reveals surprisingly little bang for that amount of buck. Most cases failed — as the tables in the blogpost show — and even those which “won”, such as challenges to decisions over Brexit, had no impact on our eventual exit from the EU. 

Yet you would not realise this if your only source of information was the Good Law Project itself. Its website claimed on 22nd April 2022 that its impact has been “vast” and despite some recent legal drubbings and big costs bills, it will continue its good works:

But when it makes sense, we will continue cases we have started and bring new cases we still think we can win. In some instances, the best decision will be to withdraw. We will back more cases brought by others. And when Ministers tell you lies, we will continue to publish the truth.

Being overly optimistic about your projects is, of course, not a crime and the principle of “caveat emptor” applies to crowdfunding as much as any other attempt to part a fool from his money. But there is something quite particular about an organisation that seeks to exploit the natural distaste of many for political cronyism and corruption by promoting highly inaccurate spin over truth and taking 10% of money raised for its “core running costs”.

Take for example the case of Good Law Project & Anor, R (On the Application Of) v The Prime Minister & Anor [2022] EWHC 298 in February 2022. The GLP were concerned that the appointment of Conservative Peer Dido Harding as Head of the National Institute for Health Protection was a disgraceful example of political cronyism — “she was just handed the job”. The GLP raised just shy of £400K to join the Runnymede Trust in taking legal action. With references to “silver spoons” and handing jobs to mates,  it’s not hard to see which buttons it pushed to raise this quite astonishing amount: 

Appointing your mates to top jobs isn’t new or the preserve of the Conservative Party: we all remember “Tony’s Cronies” too. But it’s high time we put a stop to it. Runnymede Trust and Good Law Project are challenging the appointment of Dido Harding, as well as a string of other appointments which were made with seemingly no advertisement or fair recruitment process

The court declared that the claim brought by the Good Law Project failed in its entirety. The claim by the Runnymede Trust succeeded on one ground to a limited extent. 

The Good Law Project and its donors need some effective competition

It’s certainly bold of the Good Law Project to announce this finding to its supporters as “We won!” — as they did on their website — and then for its Director Jolyon Maugham to double down on social media to claim that this was only a loss in the “deeply technical sense”. 

It’s even bolder to then to continue to make inaccurate claims on Twitter about the court’s findings, asserting that the Prime Minister had been found to have failed to comply with the public sector equality duty when the court made no such finding. 

Barrister Barbara Rich commented via Twitter on February 17th

The story of this case and public understanding of it isn’t just about the “we won/claim brought by GLP fails in its entirety” message. It is also about expectations raised in promoting crowdfunding for it, and how far the outcome meets those expectations or falls short of them

There is an urgent need for better discipline around those who seek to exploit emotional responses to raise money for legal cases of dubious quality, underpinned by regulation if necessary. Be honest upfront about what you want and your chances of success – or at least be honest about what happens after you lose. These are significant sums raised from the desire of individuals to ‘make a difference’ and there is a responsibility on such organisations to recognise this.

Because it’s not just money received from crowdfunders that enriches the Good Law Project As the Labour Pains blog notes, the GLP “receives substantial sums in regular and one-off donations”. According to statements filed with Companies House in April 2021, “the GLP received £1,136,155 in such direct donations, and another £225,504 in grants”.  

If additional regulation isn’t on the horizon or Mr Maugham continues to insist on reframing a loss as a technical win, then what the Good Law Project and its donors need is some effective competition to make it more than simply a “midlife crisis plaything”. I am reliably informed that may be just around the corner. Watch this space.

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