Crowdfunding is a way of financing your endeavour through donations of money from the public.
You start by posting a campaign idea online, together with a description of the project. If members of the public want to support the campaign, they can donate money to help you achieve the goal. People who make donations are generally known as ‘backers’.
Sean Roche is the law graduate behind lawfunder.org, a website that promotes crowdfunding campaigns for those who need help affording legal representation and keeping legal costs down. LawFunder also works with Australian Community Legal Centres (CLCs) to provide free legal crowdfunding advice.
In June 2015, LawFunder’s first campaign succeeded in raising funds for SCALES CLC to assist it’s client, Amni, to bring her family to Australia. Mr Roche believes Amni’s story demonstrates that crowdfunding is a viable option for people and cases that do not qualify for government assistance.
After spending years in a Kenyan refugee camp, Somalian refugee Anmi arrived in Australia in 2012 and was reunited with her mother. However, Anmi’s partner, Tacha, and their daughter, Ganat, remained in Kenya.
The family was desperate to be reunited, but found it difficult to raise the $6,000 for a visa application fee. To make matters worse, in July 2015 the cost of the application was set to increase to $8,500— money that Anmi and her family could simply not afford to pay.
How Lawfunder helped
Lawfunder created an online crowdfunding campaign for SCALES which explained the problem and provided a solution for people who wanted to help. SCALES also advertised the Lawfunder campaign through its own network. It began receiving donations immediately.
The power of social media updates drove momentum and donations, and allowed SCALES and Anmi to raise their target amount of $6,000 within 15 days.
Anna Copeland, Director of Clinical Legal Programs at SCALES said, “We were absolutely thrilled with our campaign on LawFunder. We would absolutely, without a doubt, recommend it to other CLCs.”
CLCs face funding crisis
While crowdfunding is an option for some legal causes, many are disappointed that government cutbacks to CLCs have made it much more difficult for those who are not well-off to receive legal help.
The National Association of Community Legal Centres says that 150,000 people are turned away each year, and that resourcing has always been the main issue. Last month, Chair Rosslyn Monro said that despite the Productivity Commission’s Access to Justice Arrangements Report recommending an increase in funding to CLCs, funding has been cut and services are suffering.
Executive Director of the Queensland Association of Independent Legal Services, James Farrell, fears that:
“Upcoming cuts will have a significant impact on the ability of CLCs to assist the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the community, and inevitably will lead to essential legal services closing down in some communities.”
Difficulties with crowdfunding
Crowdfunding is not a new concept, and many campaigns have not been as successful as Anmi’s.
It is difficult for members of the public to determine whether someone has a genuinely good cause, and that they are telling their backers the whole story. In criminal cases, it can be very difficult convincing people to help you prove your innocence; especially given community perceptions that those charged with criminal offences are likely to be guilty.
There are many campaigns seeking donations for criminal defence. In the United States, 19-year-old Tyler Kost has spent almost 2 years in prison charged with the sexual assault and molestation of 13 girls aged between 13 to 17. His criminal defence lawyers argue that Facebook records show the girls conspired to set up Mr Kost. A family friend has started crowdfunding on the Kost family’s behalf, which hasn’t performed very well.
While everybody deserves access to justice, there are disadvantages to crowdfunding, including:
- There is no guarantee that you will reach your funding goal in the set time.
- People may not sympathise with your cause, however genuine and worthy it may be.
- It may be difficult to communicate complex legal matters to potential backers.
- You are not allowed to promise an outcome for your backers.
- You will be competing with many other people and businesses seeking crowdfunding for their ideas.
Keeping legal costs down
There are more other options for those seeking access lawyers without paying a lot of money.
One option in civil cases – for instance, where you wish to sue another person or organisation – is to enter into a ‘no win‐no fee’ costs agreement. This is where a lawyer agrees not to charge any fees for their services until and unless they ‘win’ the case. Once the client receives a favourable outcome, the lawyer’s fees will typically be paid from the money recovered from the other party.
Another option is seeking a grant of aid from the Legal Aid Commission – although applications for aid are subject to strict ‘means’ and ‘merits’ tests.
Those who are not eligible for Legal Aid may seek assistance through the Law Society of NSW Pro Bono Scheme; whereby the Law Society assesses cases and asks private law firms if they are prepared to undertake cases for free, or for a greatly reduced fee.
An option that is sometimes available in criminal cases is to ask a private law firm for a ‘fixed fee’, where the criminal defence lawyer offers a lump sum for all work undertaken in the case.
Many criminal law firms also offer free first appointments to those who have a court date. This is a good way to receive basic legal advice on your options and the best way forward, even if you cannot ultimately afford the lawyer and are left to represent yourself in court.