Crowdfunding website aims to democratise legal disputes

Image caption,
More than 5,000 major planning applications were granted in the last financial year

A new type of website allowing people to crowdfund legal challenges could be a 'game changer' for planning disputes, according to a leading environmental barrister.

The Today programme's Joshua Kelly reports on a local community that is one of the first groups to use it.

In Skelmersdale, West Lancashire, a familiar story is playing out.

Whitemoss landfill site on the edge of town treats hazardous waste from regional construction projects. It has already taken 1.5 million tonnes of material, mainly contaminated soil, but the owner wants to triple its capacity over the next twenty years to accommodate growing demand.

The company says it employs local people and supports the regional economy. But some local residents are concerned about the effect the development will have on the environment.

Image caption,
Locals say tripling the size of the 20-acre Whitemoss Landfill site will harm the environment

Joanne Taylor, who lives near the site, told Today: "Primarily it's the smell. But we also have dust coming from the top of the trucks. I personally have to wipe down all the children's play equipment in the garden because I'm so conscious of this dust that's coming over from the hazardous waste. It's heart-breaking".

Despite protests from a local campaign group, the extension plans have been approved by the Department for Communities and Local Government, which has classified the site as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP).

Work was due to begin this month, but the group is planning to launch a judicial review of the decision, claiming that its views were not properly taken into account.

In many respects, this is a typical local planning conflict. The stakes are high and both sides believe they are in the right.

But there's something unusual about this dispute. The local residents are among the first groups to use a new website for crowdfunding legal challenges.

Having exhausted conventional fundraising methods of local collections and community events, the group is asking the general public to contribute to its legal costs by donating money online.

Ms. Taylor said: "We feel like the river has run dry in Skem. The local people have dug deep already. This is a deprived area and we have really tried hard to get funds for this legal challenge. We need the rest of the country now. We can't do it alone."

But as well as bringing financial support, she believes that taking the fight to a national level enables others around the country to speak up on the community's behalf.

"We feel like we are getting dumped on with this extension. The whole town feels like nobody is listening to us. People here say 'What's the point? It's Skem. Nobody cares'.

But if we get national support it will show that there are people out there that do care about us and we can actually stand up to the government and change policy."

Claire Robinson, one of the leaders of the group, believes that the availability of crowdfunding will be crucial. She says: "I think this is going to be the decisive factor. If we have people from around the country helping us I think we could win this."

Rob Routledge, the owner of the landfill site, says that it is unfair that people without a direct stake in the project should be allowed to get involved.

He told Today: "The problem is that crowdfunding and social media are like a force multiplier. You've got maybe fifty people who can appear to be a thousand people. Something that might have been dealt with in a relatively reasonable timeframe is dragged on.

"If the delay to the extension continues, in the worst case, we could lose all of our existing customers, which it has taken us twenty years to build up", he added.

Image caption,
Skelmersdale residents have held protests against the proposed Whitemoss Landfill extension

The Skelmersdale dispute is one of eight legal challenges featured on CrowdJustice, which claims to be the first website of its kind in the UK.

It selects public interest cases and asks the public to contribute to the legal costs. If the target is met, the funds go directly to the solicitor's client account and are securely held on trust for the claimant.

CrowdJustice founder Julia Salasky, a former United Nations lawyer, says the law has been too slow to adopt new technology.

Legal aid cuts and recent legislation had made it more difficult than ever to challenge government decisions, she said, making it more important to open up alternative routes to fund legal challenges.

"It is hard for normal and vulnerable people to access the courts," she told Today.

"What a crowdfunding platform allows people to do is to come together around issues that affect them and pool their communal interests and resources."

But as a relatively untested concept, it is not clear what problems the idea might encounter.

Morag Ellis QC, chair of the Planning and Environment Bar Association, said the spontaneous and unregulated manner in which the crowdfunding concept had developed could lead to problems, particularly relating to spurious litigation and costs.

If these difficulties can be overcome, crowdfunding could be a "game changer", said Ms Ellis, as public interest in environmental campaigns was increasing exponentially.

"Environmental law has been democratised, really coinciding with the rise of the internet," she said.

"Linking potential funding sources with the internet has the potential to become quite big.

"The demand for environmental litigation isn't going to go away."

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