Generally ,civil litigation (taking someone to court for damages) takes place between a specific individual claimant, or small group of claimants, and an identifiable defendant. Class action lawsuits present an exception to this rule. Here’s a brief guide to how they work.
What is a class action?
These so-called class or representative actions involve a larger group of (usually) claimants than is the norm, and are most commonly known to arise in cases concerning large scale personal injury, such as environmental disease
(e.g. where a factory unlawfully poisons natural resources and a whole community is affected) or product liability cases (e.g. where a drug with dangerous or debilitating side effects is made available for public use.) Worldwide, examples of other circumstances in which class actions have been used, relate to securities fraud or other unlawful activities causing loss to a group of investors, or in respect of industry-wide price fixing.
The UK context
American and some European laws permit an action to be brought on behalf of an unidentified group of claimants. In the UK, however, every single claimant must be identified and named in court proceedings, in order to be part of the action and thus eligible for compensation. An exception exists in respect of consumer litigation, where consumer bodies can bring actions on behalf of consumers as a whole. Usually one class action lawyer would act for one or most of the claimants. He would apply to court for an order that it was permitted to proceed by way of class action, and then have a limited period of time in which to ensure all eligible claimants had been joined to the court action. As much as possible of the case is run as one, with only issues specific to each claimant (like specific details of injury and loss) being dealt with individually.
What are the advantages?
Since where possible the cases are dealt with together, these cases save time and legal costs and make the justice system more efficient. Cost saving in particular makes litigation available to more people who may not otherwise be able to afford it.
And the downside?
A possible disadvantage of proceeding by way of a class action, is that a claimant may feel that he lacks personal attention from his lawyer and/or the judge deciding the case, and that his own particular circumstances are not given due attention