A class apart: making the case for class actions

21 Aug 2023

Jonny Harris and Kate Miller argue that class actions have rightly won their place as part of the legal landscape but need a compelling narrative.

Collective legal actions have the potential to address a wide range of issues, from consumer rights and environmental concerns to financial misconduct. However, success often hinges on more than just the legal merits – it relies on effective third-party endorsement and media coverage, to inform, engage, and mobilise the public in its support of the claim.

Gaining attention, particularly in the national press, is becoming increasingly competitive and there is limited media space for the stories.  A carefully thought-out communications plan, with a compelling core narrative, is more important than ever.

A crowded marketplace

Class actions have been commonplace in jurisdictions across the globe, particularly in the USA, for many years. The public in these jurisdictions are familiar with these actions, and most have an understanding of how they work.

In contrast, in the UK, these sorts of cases are relatively new. It has only really been since the commencement of the Consumer Rights Act 2015, and the landmark case of Merrick v Mastercard in 2020, (which is still going through the courts) that class actions really started hitting the British headlines and catching the public’s attention.

When journalists first began to report on these claims, there was a sense of excitement and novelty.  However, over the last three years the UK has seen a significant rise in high-profile class actions, some notable examples include British Airways, EasyJet and Morrisons.

Journalists, and their editors, have lost interest in the novelty of a class action and it is no longer good enough to simply “launch” a claim and expect media coverage to follow. Moreover, there remains a sense of scepticism about the validity and motivation of group claims.  Some still see them as opportunistic or “ambulance-chasing” and are concerned that they are not to be seen as “advertising” a claim, but rather reporting on a key and relevant issue.

How do you overcome these barriers?

Telling your story

At the heart of any successful media campaign lies a compelling narrative. It is essential to tell a story that resonates with the public. Develop a narrative that highlights the issue, the individuals affected, and the broader societal implications. Third party endorsement gives important credibility to a claim and human stories and examples can help transform complex legal matters into relatable news stories that capture the attention of journalists and readers alike.  At its heart the messaging needs to convey that this is the right case, brought for the right reasons by the right people.

Despite being the dog days of August, in the last two weeks alone, the press has reported on the launch of two major class-actions – The Car Financing Claim (a legal claim launched against three of the country’s largest motor finance companies for incentivising car dealerships to sell expensive finance to buyers of second-hand cars) and British Waterways (the first class action against water companies which are alleged to have failed to reveal the true scale of raw sewage discharges, and abused their position as privatised monopolies). These cases, which effect one million and eight million consumers respectively, gained substantial media coverage. Why? Easily relatable stories, with strong human interest and business angles and a central narrative of redress for the consumer against corporate wrongdoing.

Success often hinges on more than just the legal merits - it relies on effective third-party endorsement and media coverage, to inform, engage, and mobilise the public in its support of the claim.

Jonny Harris and Kate Miller, DRD Partnership

Having the right spokespeople

Having compelling spokespeople and case studies is essential. These individuals serve as the public face of the claim, conveying the objectives, whilst also being able to tell their personal story and their reasons for championing the claim. A charismatic spokesperson can bridge the gap between the legal and technical elements of a claim and the human-interest story. Their ability to communicate the class action’s goals, potential impact, and the stories of those affected lends authenticity and credibility, fostering public trust and garnering support.

Picking your moment

Launching a class action at the right time involves a strategic alignment of factors, including the legal landscape and public sentiment. A well-timed launch can leverage current events or societal trends to generate media attention and public awareness, thereby maximising the amount of coverage of a case.

Moreover, a timely launch ensures that the issue remains relevant and captures the attention of potential class members, facilitating their engagement and participation. By judiciously selecting the optimal moment to initiate a class action, legal teams can harness the momentum necessary to drive the case forward and achieve public awareness.