Are Class Actions on the rise?

Centrelink, the Australian Government’s welfare services program is in a spot of bother. Days prior to Christmas, its new automated system started firing off letters for non-existent debts; lots of letters, 20,000 each week apparently. You can read more here.

The situation has, unsurprisingly, led some commentators to point to a possible class action if the matter was to affect the emotional or physical wellbeing of those in receipt of the letters.

Much has been written in recent years about social media’s ability to unite affected individuals in terms of such lawsuits; the Volkswagen emissions scandal of 2015 is one such example, whereby a plethora of platforms were used to galvanise plaintiffs to register their grievance towards the car manufacturer. Although, in an interesting aside, the dispute in the United States between Gawker Media and a group of its former interns did demonstrate the complexities of such cases, when the federal court ruled that plaintiffs could reach out to known interns via social media, but were not permitted to “friend” individuals on Facebook – see more here.

In light of such coverage, I was keen to gauge whether my instincts – which told me that class actions were now growing at an exponential rate – were correct. Now, here I need to give thanks to Monash University’s Professor Vince Morabito for producing a highly illuminating study on class actions in Australia. The study assesses the Federal Court of Australia’s class action regime across 24 years, from 1992 to 2016, which recorded 370 such actions. So, was it case of an avalanche of disputes since the advent of social media? No it wasn’t, as the study shows 189 proceedings filed in the first 12 years (1992 – 2004), and 181 filed thereafter. Clearly, the reasons behind such actions are many and it would be remiss to point to any one aspect of the equation being dominant; however, the findings do offer a resolutionary opportunity to start challenging my instincts.