Written by Eduardo Silva de Freitas (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Xandra Kramer (Erasmus University Rotterdam/Utrecht University) & Jos Hoevenaars (Erasmus University Rotterdam), members of the Vici project Affordable Access to Justice, financed by the Dutch Research Council (NWO), www.euciviljustice.eu.
Third Party Litigation Funding (TPLF) has been one of the key topics of discussion in European civil litigation over the past years, and has been the topic of earlier posts on this forum. Especially in the international practice of collective actions, TPLF has gained popularity for its ability to provide the financial means needed for these typically complex and very costly procedures. The Netherlands is a jurisdiction generally considered one of the frontrunners in having a well-developed framework for collective actions and settlements, particularly since the Mass Damage Settlement in Collective Actions Act (WAMCA) became applicable on 1 January 2020 (see also our earlier blogpost). A recent report commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security found that most collective actions seeking damages brought under the (WAMCA) have an international dimension, and that all of these claims for damages are brought with the help of TPLF.
This blogpost provides an update of the latest developments in the Dutch collective action field focusing on a recent interim judgment by the Amsterdam District Court in a collective action against TikTok c.s in which the Dutch court assessed the admissibility of the claimant organisations based, among other criteria, on their funding agreements. This is the second interim judgment in this case, following the first one year ago which dealt with the question of international jurisdiction (see here). After a brief recap of the case and an overview of the WAMCA rules on TPLF, we will discuss how the court assessed the question of compatibility of the TPLF agreements with such rules. Also in view of the EU Representative Action Directive for consumers, which became applicable on 25 June 2023, and ongoing discussions on TPLF in Europe, developments in one of the Member States in this area are of interest.
In the summer of 2021, three Dutch representative foundations – the Foundation for Market Information Research (Stichting Onderzoek Marktinformatie, SOMI), the Foundation Take Back Your Privacy (TBYP) and the Foundation on Mass Damage and Consumers (Stichting Massaschade en Consument, SMC) – initiated a collective action against, in total, seven TikTok entities, including parent company Bytedance Ltd. The claims concern the alleged infringement of privacy rights of children (all foundations) and adults and children (Foundation on Mass Damage and Consumers). The claims include, inter alia, the compensation of (im)material damages, the destruction of unlawfully obtained personal data, and the claimants request the court to order that an effective system is implemented for age registration, parental permission and control, and measures to ensure that TikTok complies with the Code of Conduct of the Dutch Media Act and the GDPR.
In a its second interim judgment in this case, rendered on 25 October 2023, the District Court of Amsterdam assessed the admissibility of the three representative organisations (DC Amsterdam, 25 October 2023, ECLI:NL:RBAMS:2023:6694; in Dutch), and deemed SOMI admissible and conditioned the admissibility of TBYP and SMC on amendments to their TPLF agreements. This judgment follows the District Court’s acceptance of international jurisdiction in this collective action in its first interim judgment, which we discussed on this blog in an earlier blogpost.
TPLF under the WAMCA
The idea of TPLF refers essentially to the practice of financing litigation in which the funder has no direct involvement with the underlying claim, as explained by Adrian Cordina in an earlier post on this blog. The basic TPLF contract entails the funder agreeing to bear the costs of litigation on a non-recourse basis in exchange for a share of the proceeds of the claim. Collective actions tend to attract this type of funding for two reasons. Firstly, these claims are expensive for several reasons such as the need for specialised legal expertise and complex evidence gathering, thereby creating a need for external financing through TPLF. Secondly, considering that these proceedings seek damages for mass harm, the potential return on investment for a funder can be substantial. This makes it an appealing prospect for funders who may be interested in investing with the possibility of sharing in these proceeds.
The WAMCA has put in place some rules on the practice of TPLF in the context of collective actions. These rules are inserted in the revised Article 3:305a Dutch Civil Code (DCC), which concerns the admissibility requirements for representative organisations to file such actions. Among other requirements, these rules stipulate that claimant organisations must provide evidence of their financial capacity to pursue the action while maintaining adequate control over the proceedings. This provision aims to ensure the enforceability of potential adverse cost orders and to prevent conflicts of interest between the funding entity and the claimant organisation (Tzankova and Kramer, 2021). This requirement can be waived if the collective action pursues an “idealistic” public interest and does not seek damages or only a very low amount, commonly referred to as the “light” WAMCA regime (Article 305a, paragraph 6, DCC). However, foll0wing the implementation of the Representative Actions Directive (Directive (EU) 2020/1828, or RAD) in the Netherlands, the stipulations related to financial capacity and procedural control persist when the collective action derives its legal basis from any of the EU legislative instruments enumerated in Annex I of the RAD, irrespectively of whether or not the collective action pursues an “idealistic” public interest.
Additionally, within the framework of the Dutch implementation of the RAD, it is stipulated that the financing for the collective action cannot come from a funder who is in competition with the defendant against whom the action is being pursued (Article 3:305a, paragraph 2, paragraph f, DCC).
Additional rules on TPLF can also be found in the Dutch Claim Code, a soft-law instrument governing the work of ad hoc foundations in collective proceedings. The latest version of the Claim Code (2019) mandates organisations to scrutinise both the capitalisation and reputation of the litigation funder. The Claim Code also stipulates that TPLF agreements should adopt Dutch contract law as the governing law and designate the Netherlands as the forum for resolving potential disputes. Most importantly, it emphasises that the control of the litigation should remain exclusively with the claimant organisation. Moreover, it prohibits the funder from withdrawing funding prior to the issuance of a first instance judgment. This Claim Code is non-binding, but plays an important role in Dutch practice.
The District Court’s assessment of the TPLF agreements
In the most recent interim judgment, the District Court of Amsterdam assessed the admissibility requirements concerning financial capacity and control over the proceedings for each of the organisations separately. In its first interim judgment the court had determined that, with a view to assessing the admissibility of each of the claimants and also with a view to the appointment of an exclusive representative, the financing agreement the claimants had reached with their respective funders should be submitted to the court.
After the review of these agreements all three organisations were deemed to have sufficient resources and expertise to conduct the proceedings since they are all backed by TPLF agreements (SMC and TBYP) and donation endowments (SOMI). However, the court ordered amendments to the TPLF agreements of both SMC and TBYP due to concerns related to control over the proceedings. The District Court also acknowledged concerns about potential excessiveness in compensation, particularly if calculated as a fixed percentage irrespective of awarded amounts and the number of eligible class members. Notably, the court considered the proportionality of compensation to the invested amount and emphasised the need to align it with the potential risks faced by litigation funders.
In this sense, the court indicated that the acceptable percentage of compensation for litigation funders should be contingent on the awarded amount and the expected number of class members. While a maximum of 25% accepted in case law (for example, in the Vattenfall case, DC Amsterdam 25 October 2023) could play a role, the court indicates it will use a five-times-investment maximum as a more practical approach. The court stressed the importance of adjusting compensation rates based on damages to be assessed, ensuring appropriate remuneration for funders without exceeding the established maximum.
In light of these considerations, the District Court also outlined preconditions for future approval of settlement agreements, limiting the amount deducted from the compensation of the class members to a percentage that will be established by the court and capping litigation funder fees.
Assessment of each organisation’s control over the proceedings
The three claimant organisations have entered into different financial agreements to pursue this collective action. SOMI is financed by donations from another organisation, which does not require repayment of the amount invested. The District Court assessed the independence of SOMI’s decision-making, given that the sole shareholder of the donating organisation is also the director of SOMI. The court concluded that appropriate safeguards are in place, as the donation agreement contains clauses stipulating that this person should refrain from taking any decisions in case of a conflict of interest. It was also stressed that the donating organisation declared to be independent from SOMI’s directors and lawyers, as well as from TikTok.
On the other hand, TBYP and SMC have entered into TPLF agreements. The District Court highlighted some provisions of TPLF agreement of TBYF that were deemed dubious under the WAMCA. One clause required that no actions could be taken that could potentially harm the funder’s interests, with an exception made if such actions were legally necessary to protect the interests of the class members. The court decided that this clause compromised TBYP’s independence in controlling the claim. Another clause stipulated that TBYP could not make, accept, or reject an offer of partial or full settlement in the proceedings without first receiving advice from the lawyers that such a step was reasonable. The court viewed this clause as further compromising TBYP’s control over the proceedings.
Similarly, the District Court had reservations about some clauses in the TPLF agreement SMC had entered into. One clause stipulated that if the lawyers were dismissed, the funder could inform SMC of the replacing lawyers they would like to appoint, subject to SMC’s approval. Also, if the funder wanted to dismiss the lawyers and SMC disagreed, the dispute should be resolved by arbitration. The court decided that this gave power to the funder to disproportionately influence the proceedings. Another clause stipulated that if the chance of winning significantly decreased, the parties would need to discuss whether to continue or terminate the agreement. The court rejected this clause, stressing that terminating the TPLF agreement prematurely is unacceptable. Finally, the agreement contained a clause allowing the funder to transfer its rights, benefits, and obligations under the agreement, even without SMC’s consent. The court also rejected this clause, emphasising that SMC should not be involuntarily associated with another funder.
In view of all these considerations the District Court decided that these provisions in the TPLF agreements could compromise the independence of TBYP and SMC from their respective litigation funders. In principle, the presence of these contractual provisions should lead to TBYP and SMC being deemed inadmissible. However, considering the overall intent of the TPLF agreements and the novelty of such agreements being reviewed, the court has given TBYP and SMC the opportunity to amend their TPLF agreements to remove the contentious clauses.
In its decision, the District Court repeatedly stressed that it was ‘entering new territory’ with this detailed assessment of the funding agreements. This is also reflected in the careful consideration the court has for the various, potentially problematic, aspects of TPLF in collective actions and the fact that it chooses to formulate a number of preconditions that it intends to apply when determining what will count as reasonable compensation in the event of future approval of a settlement agreement. It thereby forms the second act in this TikTok case, but also the firsts steps in clarifying some uncertainties in the practical implementation of the WAMCA.
The challenges collective actions and TPLF face are not unique to The Netherlands, as for instance also the PACCAR judgment by the UK Supreme Court 0f earlier this year showed (see also this recent blogpost by Demarco and Olivares-Caminal on OBLB). In this ruling, the Supreme Court considered whether Litigation Funding Agreements (LFAs) should be regarded as Damages-Based Agreements (DBAs) within the context of ‘claims management services’. The court concluded that the natural meaning of ‘claims management services’ in the Compensation Act 2006 (CA 2006) encompassed LFAs. The court dismissed arguments suggesting a narrower interpretation of ‘claims management services’, stating it would be contrary to the CA 2006’s purpose. As a result of this ruling, these agreements could potentially be deemed unenforceable if they fail to adhere to the regulations applicable to DBAs.
This second interim judgment in the TikTok case is a novelty in the Dutch practice of collective actions in terms of the detailed review of funding agreements. While generally being a collective action-friendly jurisdiction, this judgment and other (interim) judgments under the WAMCA so far, show that bringing international collective actions for damages is a long road, or what some may consider to be an uphill battle. The rather stringent requirements of the WAMCA are subject to rigorous judicial review, which has also resulted in the inadmissibility of claimant organisations and their funding agreements in other cases (notably, in the Airbus case, DC The Hague 20 September 2023, ECLI:NL:RBDHA:2023:14036). Almost four years after the WAMCA became applicable no final judgment rewarding damage claims has been rendered yet. But in the TikTok case the claimant organisations got a second chance. This open trial-and-error approach is perhaps the only way to further shape the collective action practice both in The Neterlands and other European countries.
To be continued.