Can A Crowdfunding Site Help Make The Justice System More Just?

In the UK, Crowdjustice has already helped bring several cases to Britain's Supreme Court

Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
Jun 06, 2017 at 3:49 PM ET

Justice may be blind, but she’s also made out of solid gold. The cost of bringing forth public interest cases is an issue that one legal advocacy startup aims to address through crowdfunding.

CrowdJustice is a Kickstarter for legal cases in the public interest that aims to improve on generic crowdfunding platforms by seeing the legal process all the way through. Unlike Kickstarter or GoFundMe, where legal cases are among many types of campaigns, CrowdJustice manages the proceedings closely. It works to ensure a lawyer has been hired and monitors how donations are spent. For these efforts, the site takes 5 percent of all donations.

It has made its way to the U.S. after getting its start in the U.K. in 2014 under CEO and founder Julia Salasky, a former United Nations lawyer. There, the site had amassed enough support to bring multiple cases to Britain’s Supreme Court, raising $3.5 million in total through 2017.

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Salasky is now moving to the U.S. because she sees opportunity in the Trump presidency.

“There’s a real excitement in the U.S. around the possibility of the courts as a way to provide accountability to the executive branch as a way to push forward change,” Salasky, who was raised in the U.S., told Vocativ.

She first launched CrowdJustice in the U.K. as the government slashed legal aid funding, which created what Amnesty International called a “two-tier” system that denies poor citizens access to justice.

“The law is so inaccessible to people, and that’s partly a function of lack of funds,” she said. “There are so many people who can’t afford access to legal services, and there’s another barrier to entry around access to information. The law is a very scary thing to a lot of people.”

Already, CrowdJustice has shown the power of harnessing public advocacy in crowdfunding a legal defense for Yemeni brothers Tareq and Ammar Aqel Mohammed Aziz. The young men were temporarily forced to waive their legal immigration status hours after President Trump’s initial executive order banning Muslims from entering the country. Along with the Legal Aid Justice Center, which helps clients facing legal problems relating to poverty and injustice, CrowdJustice raised over $36,000 for the brothers’ defense.

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The Aziz brothers’ case was among the first that helped bring the role of lawyers, who are enjoying a rare moment of public goodwill, into the spotlight as potential change-makers under the Trump Presidency.

“There are so many lawyers who have been working at the forefront trying to advance human rights and civil rights [but] lawyers, in general, have such a bad rap…everybody gets tarred with the same brush,” Salinsky said. “It’s great when there’s a recognition that lots and lots of lawyers dedicate their lives to really seeking justice for people.”

Following the Aziz case and another that challenges political gerrymandering in Virginia, CrowdJustice is now crowdfunding the defense for Mike Hallatt, a Vancouver resident who buys products from the grocery chain Trader Joe’s products in bulk and resells them in the Trader Joe’s-less country of Canada. Hallatt, whose business he calls “Pirate Joe,” is now being sued by the chain for trademark infringement.

Maintaining that his business is legal and a legitimate secondary market, Hallat told The Verge that he approached CrowdJustice as “a way for me to gain equality of arms against a much bigger adversary.”

His campaign has garnered the support of 113 people so far and will end on June 29, regardless of whether or not it hits the still far-off fundraising goal of $50,000.