In recent years, investors have started buying shares in other people’s
litigation proceedings. Are they warping the legal system in the process?
By MATTATHIAS SCHWARTZ
"Despite the hypercapitalist spirit of its rise, litigation finance actually has its roots in antiquity. According to Max Radin, a historian of ancient city-states, members of Athenian political clubs would back each other in lawsuits against their rivals. Apollodorus, a wealthy banker’s son, bought shares of lawsuits and hired professional orators — some of the earliest lawyers in Western history — to write his court speeches. The Romans tolerated the practice in some cases until the sixth century, when it was banned by Emperor Anastasius. The Roman taboo on litigation finance, Radin writes, sprang from the idea that ‘‘a controversy properly concerned only the persons actually involved in the original transaction,’’ not self-interested meddlers. In medieval England, litigants could hire ‘‘champions’’ to represent them in ‘‘trial by battle.’’ By the late 13th century, these strongmen were being compared to prostitutes, and their prevalence hastened the movement of dispute resolution to the courtroom. During the Middle Ages, this concept of ‘‘champerty’’ — assisting another person’s lawsuit in exchange for a share of the proceeds — emerged as part of the larger ecclesiastical taboo against usury. Though the word was associated with feudal land grabs, Radin notes that in practice, champerty was used by rich lawyers ‘‘on behalf of propertied defendants.’’ In 1787, Jeremy Bentham, the political philosopher, mocked prohibitions on champerty as a holdover from feudal days, where courts were beholden to ‘‘the sword of a baron, stalking into court with a rabble of retainers at his heels.’’
For previous posts on litigation financing, see here, here, and here.