Litigation funding – the practice of third parties financing lawsuits in exchange for a share of any funds the plaintiffs might receive – was once widely prohibited. As these bans have been eroded in recent decades, the practice has grown, spread, and become a contributor to social inflation: increased insurance payouts and loss ratios beyond what can be explained by economic inflation alone.
Social inflation is a broad term that insurers use to describe these rising expenses. Litigation funding is just one factor driving it.
The relevant legal doctrine – called “champerty” or “maintenance” – originated in France and arrived in the United States by way of British common law. The original purpose of champerty prohibitions, according to an analysis by Steptoe, an international law firm, was to prevent financial speculation in lawsuits, and it was rooted in a general mistrust of litigation and money lending.
The erosion of champerty prohibitions can be traced to the early 1990s in the United Kingdom and Australia.
“By the mid-1990s, a handful of Australian states had already done away with Maintenance and Champerty offenses such that they were no longer crimes or torts,” according to an article published by Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession. “Whether this rendered litigation finance permissible, however, remained doubtful. One jurisdiction [New South Wales] notably abolished Maintenance and Champerty offenses through formal legislation.”
These moves, the article goes on to say, “produced ambiguity around the use of litigation finance arrangements, where before they were more clearly prohibited.”
England, Canada, and Australia have since largely abandoned their laws against champerty, Steptoe writes, but Ireland, New Zealand, and Hong Kong continue to prohibit certain transactions as “champertous.”
Slow to take hold in U.S.
Despite the size of the potential market, litigation funding took time to gain traction in the United States because prohibitions on champerty are left to state legislatures and courts. Some states have abandoned their anti-champerty laws over the past two decades. Others still prohibit champerty, either by statute or common law. Some, like New York, have adopted “safe harbors” that exempt transactions above a certain dollar amount from the reach of the champerty laws.
Minnesota recently became the latest state to abandon its champerty prohibition. In Maslowski v. Prospect Funding Partners LLC, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that the litigation funding agreement under consideration was champertous; however, it also held that champertous contracts no longer contravene “public policy as we understand it today.”
The court explained that the common-law prohibition against champerty was originally based on a desire to prevent abuse of the court system by individuals wealthy enough to finance lawsuits. It held that the doctrine against champerty is no longer the only or best tool for achieving that goal – and, in fact, may “increase access to justice” by enabling individuals who might not otherwise have the financial means to pursue their claims in court.
Courts drive decline of anti-champerty laws
The Minnesota Supreme Court was able to abolish the doctrine, Steptoe writes, because Minnesota’s prohibition was based on common law, rather than statute. This is in contrast to New York, where the prohibition is statutory. Re-examining it is the responsibility of the state legislature, not the courts.
As the popularity of litigation funding – along with awareness of its impact on insurers and policyholders – grows, the practice has come under increased scrutiny. The policymaking arm of the American Bar Association (ABA) recently approved a set of best practices for such arrangements.
The resolution – adopted by the ABA’s House of Delegates by a vote of 366 to 10 – lists the issues lawyers should consider before entering into agreements with outside funders. While it avoids taking a position on the use of such funding, it recommends that lawyers detail all arrangements in writing and advises them to ensure that the client retains control.
The resolution also cautions attorneys against giving funders advice about the merits of a case, warning that this could raise concerns about the waiver of attorney-client privilege and expose lawyers to claims that they have an obligation to update this guidance as the litigation develops.