When Third-Party Funding (TPF) is mentioned, surely the first question that (still) arises for most people is: what is it all about? If we translate this expression into “third-party funding of litigation”, perhaps the doubts will be dispelled for the overwhelming majority of people. However, it is inevitable to question right away what TPF really is and how it works.
The business model can be summarised as follows: for a lawsuit or set of lawsuits, there is a third party that will bear all the costs (including the lawyer’s fees and, in the case of arbitration, the arbitrators’ fees) in exchange for a percentage of the amount received by the financed party (usually 30% to 40%) or a multiple of the money invested (typically between three and five times, i.e. for every euro financed, the third party will receive between three and five euros). The specificity of this business model is that there is only an obligation to repay if the client succeeds; if the client loses the case, the funder will not be entitled to recover the amounts that were spent in the case.
This is, broadly speaking, the business model. But, there is an inevitable question that follows: is it “legal”? Is there not a quota litis prohibited by ethical regulation? The answer, categorically, is: no! There is no legal rule that prohibits this business model. Nor does it involve any violation of the ethical duties of the lawyer (in particular the prohibition of quota litis), provided that the lawyer does not allow the relationship with his client and with the cases he handles to become conditioned or submitted to rights and duties that should typically be located only within the agreement between funder and funded party.
By way of example: it may be thought that the funder (because it is the funder who up-fronts the cash to move the case forward), will determine the way the process is conducted and will condition the procedural strategy (including the choice of counsel). This would involve a clear violation of the lawyers’ ethical duties. Admittedly, this type of conditioning may occur, particularly when the funder is not “comfortable” with the legal team, either because they have never worked with them or for any other reason. However, our experience shows otherwise.
In cases where we have worked with third party funding, the funder already knows the team of lawyers well. Often, the funders themselves come to us to understand which cases they can fund, which involves a judgement of trust in the team that is in charge of sponsoring the case. Afterwards, during the case, the funders limit themselves to a monitoring of the case in a “light touch mode”.
Despite the attractiveness that this model involves, there is a catch, because not all the cases are likely to be funded.
Firstly – and one would expect nothing less – the case must have a fair chance of success (better said: the case needs to present a high likelihood of success, typically above 80% of chances of prevailing). It is therefore expected that due diligence of the case and of the entities involved will be conducted to some extent and depth. This immediately raises a concern: information provided to the funder is not covered by professional privilege, which naturally impacts on the confidentiality of the information.
Secondly, not all the amounts involved are attractive to funders. Internationally, and from what we have seen in our practice, it is very difficult to find anyone willing to fund litigation involving sums of less than 10 or 15 million euros. The reason for this threshold is that the entities that, in turn, are behind the third party funders, and the funders themselves, are looking for minimum returns on their investments.
This point means that the phenomenon is not yet very popular in Portugal. It is not that there are not areas of the law where this financing could blossom (for example, companies in insolvency or actions related to intellectual property rights, especially patents). Among us, business initiatives to launch this financial model have already been started but, as we see it, they do not seem to be adjusted to the dimension of the Portuguese landscape. We must keep in mind the scale of our legal market and must direct the focus towards small and medium litigation of SMEs which are the ones that mostly make up the business fabric of our country. Eventually, some more specific and higher value cases may benefit from this funding, but those will be isolated cases.
There are some trends that have been developing, as regards TPF, at the international level, more specifically in international arbitration and, within this, in investment arbitration.
The most prominent one concerns the duty to disclose the existence and identity of the funder in order to ascertain the existence of conflicts of interest. In fact, it is enough to think that one of the arbitrators has a connection with the funder (because the funder has funded another case where the arbitrator acts as counsel for the party, to give just one example) to understand that the integrity of the tribunal (its independence and impartiality) may be at risk.
From this point, a duty of disclosure has been firmly affirmed and is virtually internationally consolidated. However, this (limited) duty of disclosure has quickly evolved into a duty to disclose the terms and conditions of the funding arrangement, with a view to address another very hot topic in this area.
We are referring to the problem of the security to cover the costs of the proceedings (cautio judicatum solvi or “security for costs”). In fact, when the existence of a third-party funder is known, the logical step is to presume, as some (admittedly few) arbitral tribunals have already done, that the (funded) claimant is not in a position to honour a potential “adverse” award obliging him to pay the costs of the winning party. And from this it will invariably follow a request for that funded party to provide security for costs. The understanding of the vast majority of arbitral tribunals has been very restrictive on this point since, addressing it as a typical interim measure, they require the verification of all its requirements (including the danger of not being able to recover the costs). International arbitral tribunals also have made a point that the existence of a TPF is not synonymous to “impecuniosity”. However, it is clear that respondent parties in arbitration, when suspecting or knowing about the existence of a funding arrangement, very hardly escape from the temptation to seek security for costs, as it also represents a weapon to weaken the strategy and distract the procedural endeavours of the claimant.
Nonetheless, often times a poor command of the issue on security for costs endangers the procedural strategy (of either claimant or respondent). A curious example in this regard occurred in an investment arbitration case where the arbitral tribunal relied on a statement made by the legal team (who had stated that the law firm would be responsible for paying the costs of the arbitration) to require from the claimants the filling of a unilateral undertaking to pay those costs. The law firm eventually produced that undertaking.
This is indeed a point where the greatest care must be taken by counsel lest a court considers them to be the “funders of the litigation” and consequently orders them to pay the opposing party’s costs (as has it happened in the past in England).
There is no doubt, however, that the litigation financing by third parties continues to attract a great deal of attention and some criticism as well but, on the other hand, it deserves the necessary support because it represents an undeniably useful tool when it comes to guaranteeing access to the justice.
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