Legal Hackette Lunches with Julia Salasky

Over toasted courgette bread with grilled halloumi and a humble glass or two of Adam’s ale at Lantana Café on City Road, the former City lawyer who left a job at the United Nations to start CrowdJustice – a funding platform to raise the costs of legal actions, discusses how the first year has gone, the importance of social media and how crowdfunding has become mainstream.

headshot (1)Julia Salasky launched the UK’s first crowdfunding platform for public interest litigation a year ago. Since last May CrowdJustice has raised more than £600,000 to fund more than 45 cases. Around 90% of the cases posted on the site have raised the funding needed to get off the ground, with donations ranging from £1 (the minimum sum permitted) to £1,000 and the average being around £35.

The cases funded so far have been enormously varied, dealing with environmental and employment issues, whistleblowing, public policy decisions, and the Human Rights Act. They range from an elderly man challenging a local council’s decision to restrict his access to his wife, who has dementia and lives in care home to, a woman fighting for equal rights for cohabiting couples and a campaign to stop Sheffield County Council felling trees.

The plea from junior doctors to fund a challenge to the Secretary of State’s imposition of a new contract was the most successful in terms of fundraising, raising £85,000 in just three days and a total in excess of £133,000.

Current and recent cases include those from specialist legal charity, the AIRE Centre, which is looking to challenge the joint Met Police and Home Office initiative, Operation Nexus, that allows people to be deported from the UK without any convictions; and an appeal for funding from the Justice Gap and Justice Alliance to publish PROOF – a one-off magazine telling the public the ‘definitive story of legal aid’.

The ‘biggest success and most exciting case,’ so far, says Salasky, has been the intervention by grassroots campaign group JENGbA’s (Joint Enterprise: Not Guilty by Association), questioning the law of joint enterprise, which allowed people to be convicted of murder even if they had not inflicted the fatal blow.

It had been widely used to prosecute cases involving gangs of young people, and claimed campaigners, lead to many miscarriage of justice.

In February, in the case of R v Jogee, the Supreme Court agreed and ruled that the law on joint enterprise had been wrongly interrupted for 30 years.

‘We took the whole team to the Supreme Court to watch the judgment and to see the immediacy of what we’re doing. JENGbA supporters were crying and hugging each other – we thought “this is what it’s all about”.

‘At CrowdJustice, in a way we are just a platform, but in a way we exist to create access to justice. For JENGbA to have pushed to create this change in the law and for us to have played a small role in it, was really exciting’.

Born in Virginia to an English, journalist mother, and American, attorney father, Salasky qualified into the litigation team at magic circle firm Linklaters in 2010, before moving in-house at the United Nations.

Her first year at the UN was spent in The Hague working at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, before spending two and a half years at UNCITRAL, the UN Commission on International Trade Law.

It was during the latter period that the seeds for CrowdJustice were sown. ‘I engaged a lot with the tech community on projects and saw their passion to use technology to change people’s lives for the better’.

So, she took the bold decision to leave the UN and bring the embryonic idea to life. Initially, she combined it with working for an environmental NGO, before taking the plunge full time.

‘I realised that it would only work if I put 100% into it,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t comfortable at first taking that risk, but then I met this 22-year-old guy who was starting something up.

‘When I started probing on the details of his project, his response to everything was “I’ll deal with it”. This is the approach you have to take to starting anything new – you just have to blast through any objections. Nothing ever gets started if you stop at the first hurdle.

But, she adds, ‘it was a leap of faith and that’s why watching JENGbA at the Supreme Court was so exciting – we saw the result’.

CrowdJustice came onto the scene as the legal aids cuts started to bite. But, says Salasky, that was a coincidence. ‘Although things became more critical after the devastating cuts, legal aid has been in retrenchment for years and years.’

In most cases for which funding has been sought, she says, the parties would not have been eligible for legal aid before the cuts. Rather they are brought by people who ‘can’t afford access to justice’ for all sorts of reasons, ranging from court fees, to adverse costs risks, to legal fees.

‘I’m hoping we can provide an alternative source of funding for people, but it wasn’t our intention to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of legal aid,’ she says.

In any event, she adds, the £500 million funding gap is too big for CrowdJustice to fill and the platform cannot offer the automatic protection against an adverse costs order that legal aid affords.

‘What’s really powerful about crowdfunding is that we’re allowing communities to come together to support someone — that is way more empowering that going to the government for legal aid.

‘If there are 300 people behind you and willing you to succeed – there is something very empowering about that, both for the person raising the money and for the community around them who have the chance to help someone’.

She continues: ‘What we’re trying to do is say to people that they might feel like they’re alone and that they have no money, but they can achieve something if they get lots of people to come together – whether it’s change in a personal situation or change at a policy level — and that is a huge thing to be able to do’.

Salasky compares CrowdJustice to a ‘virtual whip-round’. Parties looking for funding must have a legal representative, she explains.

When someone has a case that affects them and others in their community, they (the case owner) set up a ‘case page’ with details of the issue and a funding target to be reached within a certain number of days – typically 30. Only when the target is met, will the monies be collected from those who have pledged support. Second, or ‘stretch’ targets can be added to meet funding for additional legal needs.

There have, she says, been a couple of cases that have been unsuccessful, though most have yet to reach the final stage. Where a funded party loses, the complainant is responsible for any adverse costs order, although parties can crowdfund for the additional liability.

‘Because the donors are not investors, they are not getting a financial return and they are not exposed to an additional amount beyond their contribution,’ she explains.

CrowdJustice is still a small organisation, with only four staff. It is funded by private investment from angel investors and takes a 5% cut of the funds raised. In addition, its payments processor (Stripe) deducts a fee of 1.4% + 20p for every transaction.

‘That means 93.5% of funds raised go directly to the cases,’ which, says Salasky, ‘sounds so reasonable’ that she finds the question of justifying it hard.

‘We’re running an organisation in a new way and I’m really proud that so far we are managing to sustain a 5% model,’ she adds, before drawing a comparison with third party funders who seek to make millions from their investments – or charities, where the percentage that goes to administrative costs can be far higher, and less transparent.

While Salasky states that CrowdJustice is really just like taking a petition to the next level, by petitioning the law, she says it would not work so effectively without the internet and the social media tools that it makes available.

Half of the funding raised, says Salasky, tends to come from people reading Facebook posts. ‘We try to help funders figure out a social media strategy and look at ways they can start building a community.’

The ability to build a community, says Salasky, is key to successful crowdfunding. She gives the example of a ‘dynamic’ junior doctor who was fired after he raised concerns about patient health and safety concerns.

‘Until he started to crowdfund, he had no Twitter account and was not active on Facebook. But he managed to leverage every tool available to him to tell people about his case, and he got about 1,000 people funding him’.

Some people, acknowledges Salasky, do not have the energy, time or support to make it work. ‘That’s why it’s hard for crowdfunding to be a panacea, because the most vulnerable people simply won’t be able to create that level of community support’.

And the internet, she adds, allows people to track the progress of the cases they have funded and see the value of what they have been part of.

When she launched CrowdJustice, Salasky says, she did not know what the take-up would be, because it was so ground-breaking. Now that it has been going for a year, while it has been successful, she does not know the extent of the need for funding.

‘We don’t know if we’ve just scratched the surface, or whether we’ve maxed out and this is the pinnacle of crowdfunding in the UK. But it’s cool to see lots of different cases get funded, and to see what people are inspired by – it’s usually the human story of someone trying to create change for themselves or their community’.

Last month, it launched its first bid to fund a project rather than in individual case. Ipswich and Suffolk Council on Racial Equality is seeking to raise funds for its Tackling Discrimination in the East project, to bridge a funding gap while it waits for the outcome of its application for renewed funding from the Big Lottery Fund.

Third party funder, Balance Legal Capital, is providing some sponsorship in the partnership that sees legal charity, legal crowdfunding, and a third party funder coming together to improve access to justice.

The CrowdJustice team is also working on publishing a ‘find a lawyer’ guide – ‘to enable people to take the first step’.

‘Accessing legal advice is really hard. Loads of people don’t know where to start to find a lawyer. That’s not a problem that is restricted to people with low incomes – it’s common to most people’.

For now, they want to focus exclusively on crowdfunding. ‘We have managed to build momentum. Our ambition is to make sure everybody is aware that this is an option – whether it’s the lawyers or the parties themselves.

‘Crowdfunding is no longer a fringe thing. It’s changing how people access things from investment opportunities, to buying houses, to their studies.’

But, Salasky finds it a particular sweet fit in the world of law. ‘It’s a very innovative way to help people who aren’t big come together to be a Goliath. In law that’s perfect – to have equality of arms in that way’.

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