Crowdfunding may be ‘a la mode’, yet in one important respect this burgeoning phenomenon appears rather old-hat. Anyone remember former Number 10 policy wonk Steve Hilton’s drive to ‘integrate the free market with a theory of social solidarity based on voluntarism’? That was David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, an ambitious programme interpreted by many as a disingenuous ruse to foist the state’s responsibilities on to citizens. Austerity was its natural corollary.

Paul Rogerson

Paul Rogerson

The Big Society was a sitting target for criticism not because, as Oscar Wilde said in a very different context, ‘socialism takes up too many evenings’. Rather, it seemed to dispense with the principle of universality in favour of a community postcode lottery.

Crowdfunding (see feature, p16) has the same glaring flaw. Touted as a solution to public spending shortfalls for anything from council regeneration projects to saving local journalism, it is anything but a panacea for meeting unmet legal need. It can work for a limited number of ‘sexy’ cases that surf the zeitgeist and appeal to an articulate cohort of the liberal middle-classes. Like the Article 50 case, for instance. Moreover, it is often the same well-meaning types that keep digging into their pockets, raising the obvious danger of compassion fatigue.

The liberal middle-classes (them again) have power as well as money – they have ‘elbows’ and can engage with the right networks. Many of those most in need of access to justice have no such advantages. Which claims get funded can simply come down to who’s got the best marketeers.

There are other difficulties. There is little or no incentive to screen cases for merit and, as crowdfunded claims multiply, the incentive for government to factor the public’s philanthropy into spending decisions could become irresistible.

And what of costs? The matter has not been conclusively decided and people who donate more than a set amount may be exposing themselves to as yet unquantified risks.

Everyone involved in crowdfunding a claim needs to make sure their due diligence extends well beyond the public relations narrative.