National | Regional voices: Chubu

Japanese turn to crowdfunding to pay for public-interest lawsuits

Chunichi Shimbun

When a Nagoya-based citizens group calling for the decommissioning of an over 40-year-old nuclear power plant kicked off a crowdfunding campaign in October to cover costs for ongoing litigation, it successfully raised about ¥3.7 million, 1.5 times the target amount, in about two months.

The group had already filed a lawsuit at the Nagoya District Court demanding the decommissioning of reactors Nos. 1 and 2 of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture.

Although the lawyers involved in the lawsuit will have to continue working without pay, the group says it will be able to afford transportation fees and expenses for renting venues for meetings.

Using crowdfunding to raise funds to cover costs for lawsuits of public interest is increasingly gaining attention. Many hope that soliciting donations on an online platform could solve the problem of how to cover litigation expenses that have often been paid out of the pockets of lawyers and supporters.

“Crowdfunding is a good way to raise public interest in the justice system, but it is important to ensure transparency so that donors will be informed of how the money is used and what will happen to the funds if they are left over,” said Junsuke Matsuo, a professor of business administration at Momoyama Gakuin University in Osaka Prefecture.

There should be a manual for crowdfunding operations, Matsuo said, referring to some foreign countries that already use crowdfunding to raise money for lawsuits.

Other cases supported by crowdfunding include a lawsuit filed against Tokyo Medical University at the Tokyo District Court, demanding that the university reimburse test fees to female applicants who allege they have been subject to unfair screening due to their gender. The group representing the applicants raised some ¥7.4 million.

Thirteen lesbian and gay couples who simultaneously filed lawsuits against the government in February 2019 at district courts in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Sapporo, claiming it is unconstitutional to not allow same-sex marriage, raised some ¥10.5 million through crowdfunding.

“Lawsuits are one of the ways to solve social issues, but it has been difficult to attract the attention of the general public,” said Motoki Taniguchi, a lawyer who runs Call4, an online platform specializing in crowdfunding projects to support lawsuits founded in February 2019.

“We hope many people can share awareness of the plaintiffs through crowdfunding,” Taniguchi said.

There are different types of crowdfunding, including those that offer money or other rewards after the projects succeed, and donation-type campaigns that do not require recipients to give anything back to contributors.

In the past, lawyers usually volunteered on cases with a high public interest. But with the number of lawyers up 1.5 times from a decade ago, their income is on the decline and it is becoming difficult to solely depend on their goodwill.

Many young lawyers are debt-ridden, having to pay back scholarship money, and law firms often disapprove of their lawyers getting involved in lawsuits with small profits.

“In the past, if we spent 60 percent of our work hours on tasks that lead to profits, we could use the remaining 40 percent for public interest activities,” said Sakae Kitamura, a lawyer who heads the defense team for the Takahama nuclear plant case. “Now it is getting difficult to find lawyers to work with us.”

On Jan. 17, the Hiroshima High Court revoked a lower court decision and ordered Shikoku Electric Power Co. to suspend operation of the No. 3 reactor at the Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture because its preparations for a potential eruption of Mount Aso were inadequate.

All of the more than 10 lawyers, who represented the residents of nearby Yamaguchi Prefecture who were appealing the lower court’s decision, were working without pay, even paying transportation fees from their own pocket.

“We are constantly faced with financial difficulties, and the lawyers are shouldering quite a bit of the burden,” said Yoji Uchiyama, 62, an official of a group which supports the Ikata plant case.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Jan. 21.

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