Friday, May 25, 2012

Sometimes the solution is not where you think it is.

The story of Brett Kimberlin is a very scary one about how the American legal system can be used as a weapon to silence criticism. You can read a summary of it here or in the International Business Times here.

Have a read of one of those. Do it now. Then come back.

I want to focus on a statement attributed to Kimberlin, because I think it says a lot about the American legal system. The blogger Patterico reported on an email he received purporting to be from Kimberlin after Patterico wrote negatively about Kimberlin. The email contained the following statement:
I have filed over a hundred lawsuits and another one will be no sweat for me. On the other hand, it will cost you a lot of time and money and for what.
Let's focus on the above quote, which I assume for the time being to be genuine.

There is something deeply wrong with a legal system where a person would ever have cause to boast about the number of lawsuits they've filed.

America has a legal system uniquely well-designed for filing frivolous lawsuits. Unlike nearly every other common law country, America does not institute a loser-pays system. What this means is that if you're willing to represent yourself and sue lots of people, the only cost to you is likely to be your time.

Outside of America, it is virtually inconceivable that a statement like 'I have filed over 100 lawsuits' would be a credible threat - partly because losing a series of lawsuits would wind one up in bankruptcy long before they reached 100, but also because respondents in civil cases can take the risk of defending the suit knowing that they'll be largely reimbursed if they win. In America, for the most part if a pro se litigant sues you, no matter how ridiculous the claim, even if you win, you lose - in your time, in your lawyers fees, if you have to travel interstate to defend yourself, if you have to go through lengthy discovery processes etc. Anti-SLAPP statutes (such as California's quite robust one) help out to some extent, but they're an imperfect whack-a-mole type solution

It's a lot easier to just make it the default - if you lose, you pay.

Back when William Wilberforce was trying to outlaw the slave trade in Britain, he found it hard to get laws passed to abolish the trade directly. Instead, he very brilliantly got passed a law that allowed the Royal Navy to seize ships flying foreign flags of convenience (which is what slave ships would do). It wasn't directed specifically at slave traders, but it ended up severely depriving them of their ships and profit.

If you don't like harassing lawsuits like these, regardless of what they're about, the easiest way to stop the whole lot of them is a loser-pays legal system. Most people don't seem to regard that as the lesson of the whole affair, but it should be.

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