The Globalization of Class Actions
December 13-14, 2007,
Oxford, UK

This conference, organized by Stanford Law Professor Deborah Hensler and Dr. Christopher Hodges of the Oxford University Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, brought together leading legal scholars, practitioners and judges from North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia to examine and debate the global spread of class actions and other forms of representative and group litigation.

Around the world, individuals, non-profit organizations and other collective entities are turning to court systems for remedies to group harms: mass injuries caused by defective products or environmental exposure to toxic chemicals, mass financial losses resulting from violations of anti-trust, securities and other consumer protection statutes, and historical and contemporaneous civil rights and human rights abuses. What were once viewed as disputes between individuals, or between an individual and a corporation, are now viewed as group struggles against multi-national corporations and other global institutions.

While the United States has led the way in these developments, today, in the U.S. there is vigorous controversy over the costs and benefits of class litigation and efforts have been made at the federal and state level to rein in the litigation, by statute and court decision. Interestingly, at the same time, class actions and other mechanisms for collective action have gained support in other parts of the world. On virtually every continent, one or more nations -- including both common law and civil law regimes -- have adopted class action regimes. And the number of countries considering adoption of class actions continues to rise. The social, economic and political consequences of permitting class actions – i.e. representative collective litigation – are vast. Because class actions empower individuals with relatively modest claims that would be impractical to litigate to band together to seek redress, these legal vehicles dramatically shift the power between legal “haves” and “have nots”. As a result, class actions and other forms of collective litigation have enormous potential to deter corporate and other institutional misbehavior. But collective litigation also may impose costs on economic actors that are larger than any benefits they create, thereby increasing social inefficiency, and it has the potential to change the balance of responsibility among legislative, executive and judicial branches of government and to reshape citizens’ views of the rule of law.

Policy debates over the adoption of these changes in legal regimes frequently reference the U.S. experience, which is often portrayed inaccurately, based on anecdotes that travel quickly over international borders. As more countries adopt procedures for class actions and other forms of collective litigation, more anecdotes and half-truths about their experiences are generated, which policymakers in other countries then rely on as they debate the virtues and demerits of facilitating collective litigation in their own legal systems. A remarkable transformation in national legal regimes is taking place without adequate knowledge about the short or long-term social, economic and political consequences of the change. This conference was intended to help build that knowledge base.