It’s no secret the fees and costs associated with the legal system, whether exorbitant or not, prevent some people from seeking their day in court.
When people earn too much to qualify for Legal Aid representation but not enough to hire quality legal representation, they often have nowhere to turn to ensure their legal rights are protected.
That’s where Chicago attorney Michael Helfand and Funded Justice come in.
According to Alan Savage, COO of Funded Justice, in 2001, Helfand found himself troubled by the notion that many people with valid cases were unable to pursue their legal rights because they could not afford the fees and costs associated with doing so. He ruminated on that chasm for 11 years, when, in 2014, he established Funded Justice.
That’s where Funded Justice stepped in. “Our mission is to help people have their day in court,” says Savage.
That being said, there are some cases the organization does not believe are appropriate for crowdfunding through Funded Justice. While not offering specifics, Savage did say he personally reviews each request. If the case falls in what Savage calls a “gray area,” he refers it to Helfand for his review. If Helfand is unsure whether his organization should assist the potential client create an account through Funded Justice, he reviews it with the group’s all-attorney Board of Directors.
Because the organization is relatively new, a staff of three including Savage and Helfand attend to the needs of Funded Justice clients. Generally it’s Savage who responds to requests seeking information about the organization or establish a crowdfunding account.
There is no established minimum or maximum amount of money people can seek to raise through their fundraising campaign, although all donations must be at least $1.
Two kinds of funds exist, although one is more favored than the other. They are the “All or Nothing” and the more popular “Flexible” campaign.
However, concedes Savage, Funded Justice has no way of actually ensuring monies donated actually go towards paying an account holder’s legal fees. “With crowdfunding, you can’t check a person’s background to see if they are telling the truth,” says Savage. In fact, Funded Justice has no actual way of determining if the person claiming to need money for legal fees even has a real case or not. The organization does require people seeking accounts to submit as much corroborating information as possible, but even if all of that data is true, there is no way for Funded Justice to ensure the client used monies raised to pay legal fees and costs.
Something else Funded Justice can’t fully determine is the financial situation of the person seeking to establish an account. “We don’t know if the person actually went to an attorney to know if they legitimately can’t afford to pay their legal fees,” he says.
With all the different crowdfunding organizations already competing with one another, such as GoFundMe and Kickstarter, why would a person who can’t pay their lawyer turn to a specialized crowdfunding service such as Funded Justice rather than tapping into one of the generic platforms?
According to Savage, while the end-result of both Funded Justice and other crowdfunding platforms is the same, to help people raise capital, Funded Justice offers unique services to those with legal needs.
For example, says Savage, when a person establishes an account on other crowdfunding sites, they are “all alone.” However, when an account is created on Funded Justice, the organization steps in to help the client advertise their request for donations.
“We create press releases to try to generate interest in their cause. We also do something we call ‘crowdspeaking,’” says Savage. Funded Justice has partnered with a technologically-savvy company that coordinates people to posts tweets at the same time, using the same hashtag, in the hopes of creating a groundswell of interest and buzz around the cause. The organization also reaches out to reporters and other marketing professionals in the hopes of piquing people’s interests in their client’s causes and need for funds.
Mason Estep, the former owner of Standoffer, a crowdfunding platform he helped create and then sold, says Funded Justice is an excellent idea. “I think it’s a great way to leverage against the high costs of effective legal action and litigation,” says Estep, whose latest venture is Sech's, an alcoholic beverage aimed at the college crowd.
Estep sees nothing wrong with people crowdfunding for legal fees and costs. “I think it’s just as ethical as pro bono legal services currently in existence. Taxpayers pay for these services to be available, so why not offer the choice of which case to contribute to, as well?” he concludes.
ami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer. She may be reached at TKMwrites@gmail.com or @girlwithapen.