The second half of 2021 was shaped by a series of battles in the Federal Parliament, with the government attempting to restrict class actions to an extent never seen before.
The contentious bill introduced to the Parliament in late 2021 proposed a 30% cap on fees for litigation funders and law firms, a strict set of criteria to assess the fairness of a settlement, and implied that common fund orders – a key staple of Australia’s open class actions system – might not be available in the State jurisdictions. This effectively kneecapped the ability of judges to determine the fairness and reasonableness of any proposed settlement, and also raised questions about the constitutionality of the bill given its implied interference in state jurisdictions.
So far, 2022 is shaping up to be a quieter year in terms of the legislative agenda. With a Federal election fast approaching in May, the government has indicated that it will not attempt to get the bill through the Senate in the limited time remaining. Should a change in government occur, or even just a change in composition of the Senate, the bill may never come to fruition.
But this does not mean we can rest on our laurels.
The last three years have demonstrated that now, more than ever, the conservative parts of Australian politics have a desire to restrict class actions. Chief Justice James Allsop went so far as to state that “personal prejudices and assumed positions from limited experience” must be put aside, and it is important that people remember class actions are in the public interest.
When the Chief Justice comes out with a public statement like that, it is evident that the government has been playing politics and failing to protect the interests of everyday Australians. In my last column for this publication, I pointed out that 35% of Australians hold shares. This number increases to around 80% when you consider investments through superannuation. If protecting 80% of the population from corporate wrongdoing isn’t in the public interest, I don’t know what is.
Putting that aside for the moment, 2021 was a momentous year for class actions in Australia. Maurice Blackburn was responsible for over half of all class action settlements in Australia and recovered 73% of the top 10 settlements by value. Of particular note are the settlements for victims of wrongdoing in the QLD Floods class action, the Crown shareholder class action and the Northern Territory Youth case. Our successful judgment on behalf of Indonesian seaweed farmers in the Montara Oil Spill case was also a highlight.
I am looking forward to what our team will deliver this year, as we continue to fight for everyday Australians who otherwise might not have access to justice.
National Head of Class Actions
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