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The predicted shape of Australian class actions

The predicted shape of Australian class actions

Increased involvement from plaintiff law firms other than Slater & Gordon and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers and new litigation funders entering the market are the main trends that have been…

Increased involvement from plaintiff law firms other than Slater & Gordon and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers and new litigation funders entering the market are the main trends that have been predicted for the future of class actions.

The CEO of legal advisory firm Ally Group and former ASIC lawyer, Joanne Rees, told Lawyers Weekly that class actions are becoming more common in Australia.

"I think there are going to be other law firms - other than the traditional plaintiff law firms like Slater & Gordon and Maurice Blackburn - who will be prepared to take on the matters and also become experienced in them, but also there are other funders who will become more confident in taking on some of the larger matters," she forecast.

Litigation funders and their value in the role of helping to police company behaviour should be recognised, particularly in the case of directors, said Rees.

"I know there is concern by company directors as to these sorts of actions and what it means for them, but the reality is the funders are only going to be successful if they can prove there is a legal case and that they can be successful," she said.

"So I think, for the directors, it's like being critical of regulators pursuing them - if their behaviour is appropriate the regulators aren't going to have an action and, likewise, the funders aren't going to be successful in their action.

"So I actually see the funders as coming in as another form of regulation. Regulators often can't do everything. So with the regulators working [with litigation funders] side by side [it can] help ensure appropriate corporate behaviour."

Rees said that while the IMF currently had "first manoeuvre advantage" over other funders, she believed that in five to 10 years competition would become fierce as funds looked to expand into Australia.

"I think there is now a real confidence, as a result of some of the verdicts, that there is a future for class actions in Australia ... There wasn't necessarily confidence as to whether they were going to take off in Australia as they [had] in America. The obvious reasons were [that], under adverse costs in Australia, the plaintiff firms weren't entitled to indemnity costs to get a proportion of the success - as they are in America. So I think there really was some concern as to how viable they were going to be," she said.

"But I think, over time, that confidence is building. Now there is some [level of] success and some settlements and some positive outcomes in the court and I think that there are more and more funders who are clearly interested in opening up in the market."

Integrated Legal Holdings, which in the past 12 months has acquired Argyle Lawyers and mda lawyers, has announced it plans to continue an aggressive acquisitions strategy that will see the company target 10 to 15 purchases over the next five to 10 years.

Perth-based litigation funder Hillcrest Litigation Service recently announced that its profits were up by 48 per cent, to $1.5 million, in its 2008/09 annual report and said it was investigating the expansion of its office into Sydney and Melbourne.

- Sarah Sharples

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