How do I Manage my Group?

A legal case may be brought by one person or one organisation, or by a group of people and/or organisations. This can be called as “class action“.

There are significant benefits of bringing a legal case as a group. The benefits include:

  • Greater access to support generally. Not only can members of the group support each other, a larger group of litigants will be more likely to secure support from outside the group (see How Can I Get Support?).
  • Greater security due to safety in numbers and the different forms of support that you can get in a group (see How do I Deal with Security?).
  • Greater resources with which you can finance your case. Groups can bring their resources together and share costs (see How Can I Finance my Action?).

But there are also difficulties that can arise when bringing a legal case as a group. If you are thinking of bringing a group action, there are a number of things that you need to think about carefully.


Working Together: Things to Think About

(a) Does Everyone in your Group Have the Right to Bring the Case?

In Who Can Take Legal Action?, we covered the concept of “standing” and how people bringing a legal case need to have a legal right to bring the case to court. If you are bringing a case as a group of individuals or organisations, each individual or organisations needs to have standing to be part of the group. If you try to bring a case as a group, and certain members don’t have the right to bring the case, they could be removed from the case or your case could be dismissed. That is why it is important to check everyone in your group has a right to bring case.

There are situations in which only organisations and not individual persons will be able to bring a case.

  • For example, it may be hard for one or two disabled persons to bring a case on behalf of disabled people in general, but it may be possible for an organisation of disabled people to do so.

There are also situations where only certain individuals can bring a case, meaning your whole group must satisfy certain criteria.

  • For example, sometimes only victims can bring cases. This means every member of your group must be a victim of the harm complained of.

(b) Does Everyone in the Group Have Compatible Objectives and Interests?

Tensions can arise when different members of the group have different objectives in bringing a legal case.

  • For example, if some members of the group want to fight the case to the end for reasons of principle, and others just want compensation and will accept a payment to end the case without a ruling, this could create problems.

It is important that the group’s objectives in bringing a legal case are agreed upon at the early stages. This could avoid problems later.

(c) Is Everyone in the Group Able to Commit the Necessary Time and Resources?

While bringing a legal case as a group can be a good way of getting resources, this is only the case if the members of the group are committed to the case and willing to dedicate the time and financial resources for it to be successful. If certain members of the group are not prepared to commit their share of time and resources, this can create tensions within the group.

(d) Does Everyone in the Group Have the Same Willingness to Take Risks?

Bringing a legal case against a powerful defendant can involve security risks (see How do I Deal with my Security?). Different members of your group may have different levels of willingness to live with the risks that a legal case can bring. One’s willingness to accept risks can depend on the financial circumstances, personality, and vulnerability of each member of the group. This applies not just to actual group members, but to witnesses, supporters, and families of group members.

Bringing a legal case with others is usually a major commitment which means working closely together over a long period of time. It also often means taking risks together. It is therefore crucial that the members of the group know each other well enough and that there is a high level of trust among them. Make each member of the case is considered and takes part in the risk analysis and security plan for dealing with risks. Everyone must be aware of the risks and how to deal with them before bringing the case.


Ground Rules for Cooperation

To avoid future problems and make sure everyone is on the same page, set clear ground rules for cooperation among the members of the group bringing the case.

Practical Tip: What Should I Include in the Rules of Cooperation?

The rules should cover issues such as:

  • How is the group governed?
    • Who chairs the group or is on management or steering committee?
    • How are decisions taken?
  • Who will manage the finances and do the financial paperwork?
  • How does communication within the group work?
  • How does the group’s external communication with the media and the public about the case work?
  • How will the group appoint a lawyer?
  • How does communication with the lawyer(s) and representative(s) arguing the case work?
    • Who gives the instructions?
  • How does communication with the opponent in the case work?
    • Is it done only through the lawyer(s) or representatives arguing the case, or also by members of the group?
    • If so, by which ones?
  • How far does the group want to go?
    • Will it accept an offer to settle the case, or does it want to fight the case to the end?
    • Will it use all the available appeals?
  • If the case is lost and the court orders the group to pay for the opponent’s legal costs, how will these costs be shared within the group?
    • Will this sharing apply even if the court order mentions a different division of the costs?
  • How will the group store sensitive information? (see How do I Protect my Information?)
  • How will the group deal with security risks? (see How do I Deal with Security?)

Tensions within the Group

If there are many lawyers and representatives arguing the case, group dynamics can be complicated. It is important to think about the issues that could arise beforehand.

The following story shows what can go wrong;

  • A gold mine is causing pollution of a river. Local farmers can’t use the water for their land. Fishermen Can’t fish. The local village can’t get clean water.
  • The local village council (Claimant 1), a fisherman (Claimant 2), a farmer (Claimant 3) and a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working for a clean environment decide to bring a case together against the mine.
  • Claimant 1 hires a lawyer (legal representative); Claimants 2 and 3 decide to split the costs and hire a second lawyer; and the NGO has a lawyer on staff who can represent its interests. See the chart below.

Some examples of tensions that could arise in this group are:

  • The mine offers to supply clean water to the town from a neighbouring region and to pay generous compensation for the period that the wells couldn’t be used, on condition that the case is withdrawn. The mine doesn’t plan to do anything about the pollution of the river. It could be that Claimant 1 wants to accept this offer but Claimants 2 and 3 and the NGO do not.
  • Claimants 2 and 3 feel that Legal Representative 1, the lawyer for Claimant 1, isn’t representing the interests of the group properly and start sending instructions to him/her. However, Legal Rep 1 says that he only accepts instructions from Claimant 1.
  • Claimant 3 gets into financial difficulties and asks Claimant 2 to pay a bigger share of the legal bills, but Claimant 2 disagrees.
  • The NGO publishes a statement saying that it wants the river to become a nature reserve, free from pollution and fishing. Claimant 2, the fisherman, is upset.
  • The Claimants agree that they need an expert on water pollution to come to the trial as an expert witness, and Claimant 1 promises to arrange this, but Claimant 1’s lawyer misses the deadline to notify the court about this witness.
  • The court rules that only Claimant 1 and Claimant 3 have the right to bring the case.

Think about the possible tensions and disagreements that could arise in your case. Pay particular attention to these when making a set of ground rules for cooperation.

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