There no longer seems to be a question whether European countries will adopt some form of collective action procedures. The questions now are what form the collective action mechanisms will take and to what extent will the processes will adapt or reject features of the U.S. class action model.
A November 6, 2008 article by NYU law professors Samuel Issacharoff and Geoffrey Miller entitled "Will Aggregate Litigation Come to Europe?" (here) takes a look at these questions and examines whether current European reforms are, in light of the extent of the aversion to the U.S. model, "likely to be effective in realizing their stated aims."
The authors begin their analysis by noting that while class actions were long "decried as the perversity of rapacious Americans," class actions are now "the focus of significant reforms in many European countries and even at the level of the European Union." Indeed, a "consensus" has emerged that "aggregate litigation will soon be the norm" in Europe. But by the same token, there is also a consensus that the European model of aggregate litigation "will not replicate American class action litigation with its domination of entrepreneurial plaintiffs’ attorneys."
The European movement toward aggregate litigation models has advanced because of the "need to create ex post accountability mechanisms" and the create mechanisms for the "efficient resolution of numerous intertwined claims." Aggregate litigation also mobilizes "efforts to foster prevention through the prospect of civil litigation."
The authors note that the criticisms of the U.S. model in many ways correspond with concerns raised inside the U.S. But the authors also ask whether or not the categorical aversion to the U.S. model may leave European reform efforts without the means to achieve desired results.
In order to assess whether the European rejection of the U.S. model sweeps too broadly, the authors examine the recurring criticisms of U.S. class action litigation. Among other things, the authors suggest that by framing the debate this way, the discussion will reflect both the weaknesses and the strengths of the U.S. approach and allow the reform process to benefit from the beneficial aspects of the U.S. approach.
The four criticisms of U.S. class action litigation on which the authors focus are:
(1) the danger that mass settlements may overgeneralize, by treating differently situated claimants as if they were similar, particularly where "an unsolicited and effectively unsupervised" agent resolves the case on behalf of absent class members;
(2) the most significant recovery is "often by successful class counsel, not by any class member;
(3) the uneasy relation between entrepreneurialism and avarice (as evidenced most recently by the criminal pleas of leading plaintiff securities attorneys); and
(4) the manipulation of the judicial forum for litigation gain (particularly through serial exploitation of "judicial hellholes").
The authors observe that what unifies these four controversies is "the role of private entrepreneurial lawyers" – which, the authors note, is "precisely what troubles Europeans about American class action practice." Nevertheless, motivated lawyer action is the "engine that fuels American aggregate practice." The authors ask whether the comprehensive rejection of the U.S. model "throws the baby out with the bath water" and whether "the controversies that arise in a system build on self-interest can be mitigated without disabling the entire undertaking."
In order to examine these questions, the authors look at the common features of European collective action reform efforts. While the legal reforms represent a broad spectrum of initiatives, there are three common features: (1) the tendency to allow only organizations to represent consumers in class actions; (2) the interaction between rules on litigation funding and class action procedures; and (3) the preference for "opt-in" rather than "opt-out" systems.
The authors find that there are potentially significant limitations to each of these unifying features. The authors also note that the evolving European efforts attempt to realize the benefits of collective action, but are "limited in their conception of how these processes will be realized."
The threshold issue that current European reform efforts must address is who will "organize, fund and lead the collective efforts." Both the strength and weakness of the American collective approach has been the "willingness to entrust a great deal of social regulation to private initiative and common law forms of adjudication." The authors express their concern that the European "cultural revulsion" to "accepting the reality of legal enforcement as entrepreneurial activity may leave the reforms without the necessary agents of implementation."
The excesses of the U.S. class action system are a familiar hobby horse for social critics, both in the U.S. and abroad. Nevertheless aggrieved parties continue to pursue relief and redress through class litigation — and not just consumers whose interests critics contend are hijacked by self-interested lawyers, but also well-financed institutional investors that are fully informed about their interests and fully able to act independently.
While Europeans disdain the excesses of the U.S. model, there have been periodic outbursts over the past several years where the need for collective action mechanisms has been so obvious that the local legal systems had to respond. Among the various corporate scandals that came to light earlier this decade were several instances where large group of aggrieved European investors were adversely affected and collectively sought redress. The current credit crisis underscores these issues. The further European development of collective action mechanisms does, as the authors note, seem to be inevitable.
On the other hand, the limitations of the U.S. model have been painfully apparent lately. The criminal sentencing of the leading plaintiff securities attorneys certainly highlights the corrupting potential of class litigation where the agent controls or even selects the principal.
There is also recent evidence that aggrieved parties involved in U.S-based litigation increasingly may perceive their interests to be best served outside of class litigation. Significant securities class action opt-out actions, in which would-be class members proceed independently to maximize their recovery and even to reduce counsel fees (about which refer here), suggest deep concerns about the utility of class litigation.
The authors may be correct that class litigation is most effective if it is driven by motivated entrepreneurs who can drive the process and maximize class results. Nevertheless, the lessons of the recent past in the U.S. highlight clearly how important it is for strict controls over class counsel.
The recent lessons also suggest the need for some modesty in advocating the U.S. class counsel model to Europeans. Indeed, rather than expecting the success of the European reforms to depend on European’s willingness to adopt aspects of the U.S model (such as the involvement of entrepreneurial counsel), perhaps it will be the case that the improvement of the current flawed U.S. model will depend on the adoption in the U.S. of existing or yet-to-emerge European innovations that develop as part of current European reform efforts.
Hat tip to the Point of Law blog (here) for the link to the article.