Changemakers: Julia Salasky changed the face of justice with crowdfunding

As the Legal Aid pot runs dry, the cost of justice is being met by crowdfunders

Each week in The Big Issue we bring you a celebration of the thinkers, the creators, the agitators. We’re looking at somebody who has come up with an invention or an idea that is moving the dial. This week, we speak to Julia Salasky, whose crowdfunded justice idea filled a gap in Legal Aid. 

This is the woman who helped change the face of Brexit. When the Supreme Court decided in 2017 that Article 50 should be triggered by parliament rather than royal prerogative – meaning MPs had to agree to starting the process – the victors had Julia Salasky’s online platform CrowdJustice to thank. So too when the Good Law Project won its European Court of Justice case – meaning the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50, if the will of the people should shift and the nation feels like cancelling its departure from the EU. In a nutshell, CrowdJustice helps people fundraise legal fees and hold power to account.

Salasky, 36, graduated in 2007 to qualify as a commercial lawyer at Linklaters, but caught her big break when she moved to work at the UN in Vienna and The Hague. She worked on a major project focusing on online dispute resolution – trying to help consumers access the law online, across borders.

Salasky says it gave her insight into how difficult it can be for people to speak to lawyers and understand their legal rights. It was a world entirely shut off to huge sections of society, she says, with many “not even really feeling the law applied to or protected them”. Figures released by the Legal Services Board in 2015 showed that seven in 10 people with legal issues didn’t bother to pursue them.

That’s a massive gap in terms of access to justice and it’s a travesty

Lack of funding was the most common hurdle. “Legal Aid has been chipped away at for years and it is borderline impossible to access Legal Aid,” she says. “That’s a massive gap in terms of access to justice and it’s a travesty.”

But she claims no Eureka moment, just frustration at the status quo. By the time she had quietly developed the idea of a crowdfunding model, she was surprised that others looking for solutions hadn’t landed on the same answer.

“I’m really fascinated by the law and by the stories of the people who use it,” she says. “It occurred to me that people would likely want to get behind those stories, too, if it meant creating change.”

Salasky launched CrowdJustice in 2015. She emphasises that she never intended to sew the gap left by Legal Aid – it should be available for as many people as possible, she insists – but her model equips people ineligible for Legal Aid to take action. Since Legal Aid it was cut, it’s estimated that as few as 20 per cent of Brits would qualify.

My 3 tips for success

  1. If you have the resources to try, then do.
  2. Hire great people. They people around you are what will make you successful
  3. Know when to push through the naysayers, but don’t forget how to accept feedback from people.

She says: “There were a lot of naysayers at the beginning. Law as an industry is so steeped in tradition and when you’re trying something new, that can be a huge impediment. There were some articles published around our launch saying ‘this is a very noble idea, but it will never work’.”

Fast forward four years and over £10m has been raised, by 200,000 backers, for more than 500 legal cases. Cases must already be linked with a lawyer before a public page can be made on the site so that only legitimate lawsuits make it on to the platform, and CrowdJustice takes three per cent of cash raised to cover operation and compliance costs. It’s “really quite straightforward, for an industry as complex as law,” Salasky says. The company is now a team of 18, operating in the UK and the US.

“One of the really positive things we can do is raise the level of discussion to ‘this isn’t about mudslinging, this is what I’m fighting for in the courts’. That’s quite different to generic fundraising platforms where people can put up any other issue and say what they like about it.”

Each fully funded CrowdJustice campaign is a win for accessibility

Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis used CrowdJustice to raise over £20,000 to challenge the two-child tax credit limit; Essex resident Neil Coughlan got £26,000 to fight voter ID proposals, concerned that disadvantaged and homeless people would be shut out of democracy. In 2017, Sam Walton and Rev Daniel Woodhouse broke into BAE Systems’ Warton airbase to disarm warplanes that would be used by the Saudis in Yemen. They raised £12,000 to fight criminal damage charges – and were acquitted.

Right now, a live case is looking to bring a defamation action against Tommy Robinson after he falsely claimed a 15-year-old Syrian refugee had been involved in the gang-rape of an English girl.

This year, the company will roll out new product features that will support people pursuing justice in matters closer to home that might require more privacy – “whether it’s a parent concerned about education provision or a worker who needs help settling their immigration status”.

Keeping track of their successes isn’t quite a science, Salasky says. Because not everything in law goes to court, it’s difficult to come up with a definitive statistic. But, the founder believes, each fully funded CrowdJustice campaign is a win for accessibility at a time when the justice system is in chaos.

Illustration: Lyndon Hayes