Crowdfunding for Justice
11 June 2015 at 9:53 am
A young Queensland law graduate has created what he believes is a unique avenue through which Community Legal Centres may be able to extend their current legal aid assistance and generate their own funding.
In May this year, law graduate Sean Roche took part in the Queensland Legal Walk where he says he was alerted to the plight of many Australians who are unable to gain access to justice due to financial or other reasons.
“My thinking cap immediately went into overdrive on ways to improve this very serious issue,” he told Pro Bono Australia News.
“The next day I engaged other forward thinking law students to join me and in less than a month, www.lawfunder.org was born.”
Roche describes Lawfunder as a crowdfunding platform which enables Community Legal Centres in particular to create fundraising campaigns to raise money for their legal cases, along with a few added advantages thrown into the mix of the growing field of crowdfunding options.
Community Legal Centres (CLCs) help people with everyday legal problems like credit and debt, workplace bullying and unfair dismissal, consumer issues, insurance claims and family violence.
He describes the effect he hopes to achieve via lawfunder as “always backing David over Goliath – lawfunder.org is the slingshot”.
The website is still in the trial stage and it currently outlines two models for fundraising engagement; the donation model and another around an investor model which Roche says is still being formalised.
“Under the donation model, funding can come from donors or even investors and any donations to a campaign posted by a Community Legal Centre are tax deductible,” Roche says. “This applies to causes that generally do not seek monetary relief.”
“The donation model is popular because my research has shown that people have a social conscience and care about justice,” Roche says.
“The plan for CLCs is to create a free account and list some of their key cases that they need funding for. Thanks to crowdfunding for the project itself, the website hasn’t cost me a great deal to set up so I believe it should be free.
“This is not a money making scheme. I am trying to solve the funding problem for CLCs and provide access to justice for those in need.”
Roche says Lawfunder’s investment model is still in the developmental stage.
The plan is that Roche would assist CLCs or others who have been knocked back for legal assistance by approaching financial institutions for investment in funding the case.
Roche says Lawfunder could approach financial institutions for investment on behalf of the litigant, but fundraisers would be encouraged to drive their own fundraising campaign.
“We have seen litigation lenders that provide cash advances to litigants take a huge percentage share of the judgement or settlement in exchange,” he said.
“The concept I am considering is where a case has the potential for the award of a monetary settlement but the litigant cannot afford to run the trial alone and Lawfunder could call for investors.
“To reward investors, litigants either repay them with interest when the case settles or agree to split the settlement money proportionally to the investment.
“The idea is to purely provide access to justice. Sometimes these claims are shut out and we just don’t hear about it.
“I am still investigating the best way to set up the structure of the organisation. I am talking to a legal expert about how to set this up with the two different models and the ability to offer tax deductions.”
Funding for Community Legal Centres has been a hot topic of debate in Australia in recent years.
It’s been estimated that almost 60,000 hours of pro bono legal work was provided each year through Community Legal Centres across Australia, according to research released in 2012.
In July 2013 Community Law Australia called on Federal and State Governments to address funding shortages to community legal centres to ensure that rising demand is being met.
The call came as a major report by the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) revealed 63 per cent of legal services were unable to meet demand, and 85 per cent were forced to tighten or restrict service levels to meet demand for their services.
CLA Campaign Spokesperson Carolyn Bond said at the time that “access to justice is a major issue in our local communities, when people in need of legal help are being turned away or aren’t sure if they can access a service”.
In July 2013 the then Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus announced $33 million nationally over four years for CLCs. But since then Federal funding cuts across various States have left many CLC services in doubt.
By March 2015 the Aboriginal Legal Service resorted to a national online petition via Charge.org to try to stop the Federal Government’s $13.3 million in cuts to Indigenous legal services proposed for July.
And the latest Abbott Government Budget delivered in May 2015 revealed Commonwealth funding would drop drastically from 2017-18.
Community Law Australia Executive Officer Liana Buchanan said at the time that while in some States cuts will not be implemented for two years, many centres in South Australia and Tasmania are facing immediate crisis, with some forced to cut vital services.
“Closure of legal centres will mean that many disadvantaged people will have no access to any legal help at all,” Buchanan said.
Sean Roche is hoping his Lawfunder platform will kick in quickly to assist CLCs plan for the future.
“Given our initiative is barely one month old, we are currently looking towards Legal Aid organisations and CLCs for feedback and guidance but the response so far has been very positive,” he says.
He is currently working for Moray and Agnew, an insurance compensation firm in Queensland and says he’s continuing to talk to as many CLCs as possible.
“I want the website to cater to their needs and to achieve their justice goals.”
Contact Sean Roche at firstname.lastname@example.org