When NSW Premier Gladys Berejikian moved to make COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for tradies in early August, lawyer Nathan Buckley saw an opportunity.
The partner at law firm G&B Lawyers created a Facebook group on August 10 to crowdfund $1 million for a class action: “The challenge will be to overturn the NSW government public health order requiring construction workers to get jabbed in order to return to work.”
Buckley — no relation to the former Collingwood coach — posted his bank details and told the group he would accept a minimum of $500. Within two weeks, he had raised more than $100,000, bringing the total funds he’d personally fundraised for COVID legal challenges to more than half a million dollars.
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Buckley is one of a handful of Australian lawyers and law firms raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for legal challenges against pandemic health orders.
Crikey has seen more than $1 million raised across several campaigns listed on crowdfunding platforms for Australians’ class actions or test cases against vaccine mandates or lockdown orders. These campaigns are frequently shared in online anti-vaccine and conspiracy communities, making it one of the common ways money moves out of these communities.
Additionally, Crikey has not seen a single challenge from these crowdfunded efforts that was ruled in favour of the plaintiff. Nor did any of the organisers of the campaigns provide any examples. Some cases are before the courts or yet to be filed.
It’s not illegal to repeatedly test whether public health restrictions and requirements go beyond their legal authority. Class actions are a legitimate form of business for law firms. The legality of vaccine mandates in various industries is unclear and will be tested in court. Crikey does not suggest any criminal activity or professional misconduct has been committed.
What this shows is how lawyers are able to raise large sums of money online to challenge COVID-19 health restrictions, with online fringe and conspiracy groups supporting these efforts.
Another attempt by Buckley to challenge mandatory vaccinations Australia-wide which raised more than $360,000 has been shared more than 42,000 times, according to crowdfunding platform GoFundMe’s public metrics. Sharers include the long-running Australian Vaccination-Risks Network Facebook page and in the Telegram channel for the Melbourne “freedom” anti-lockdown protests.
In Buckley’s case, his social media has been key to promoting it. The Facebook page for his law firm has more than 37,000 followers and Buckley runs a number of vaccine-related Facebook groups with nearly 100,000 combined members.
Buckley and other lawyers who have crowdfunded campaigns also embrace and share vaccine misinformation, like questioning whether COVID-19 tests can detect the virus or falsely saying that vaccines “don’t work“.
The specific legal action being crowdfunded is often vague. Former solicitor Serene Teffaha reportedly raised $654,000 for a national class action against premiers for implementing curfews, border closures, mask mandates, vaccine mandates at businesses, and forbidding disproven COVID treatments. Other times, lawyers like Buckley begin fundraising before they’ve found a plaintiff to run their claim with.
These crowdfunded legal claims have a track record of being dismissed or falling over before they make it to court. Of the six crowdfunding campaigns Buckley ran, at least three have been unsuccessful so far. In Bou-Jamie v Goodstart Early Learning, Fair Work Commission deputy president Nicholas Lake even criticised the conduct of the applicant who was represented by Buckley and barrister Jim Pearce: “The submissions are further hindered by a series of somewhat spurious claims levied by the applicant which obfuscate the key issues at hand and make a novel case even more unclear.”
Teffaha’s practising certificate was cancelled in April by Victoria’s Legal Services Board for reasons that are not published. This happened months after she raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the class action to be carried out by her one-person firm, Advocate Me. This class action has failed to progress. Some people who contributed to the action have requested a refund, and a large amount remains in trust.
There is limited information about how the donated funds are being spent. Many campaigns specify funds will be used to pay “legal costs”, including lawyer and court fees. But there is little transparency. Platforms like GoFundMe, which classify contributions as “donations”, will verify the identity of a user withdrawing funds from a campaign but don’t require proof or review of expenditure. Other crowdfunding efforts direct people to send money directly to a bank account, which is completely opaque.
Using either online crowdfunding platforms and direct bank transfers means there’s no third party requiring the campaign’s organisers to disclose cost breakdowns: court fees, the cost of lawyers’ time or how much time is spent. Decisions about the amount of resources are made by the organiser.
Buckley, Teffaha and the Maatouks Law Group (which has raised nearly $100,000 for a class action against NSW lockdowns) did not respond by deadline to questions about how they would disclose funds were spent or how decisions about expenditure were made.
Teffaha’s disqualification provided rare insight into these challenges. In an email shared to her Telegram channel in April, the temporarily appointed manager of her firm questioned why she had spent more than $1000 on invoice software (“please provide an explanation for the apparent use of client trust money held in respect of the national class action to pay a general office expense”), facility hire and court filing fees for an action that was never filed. Teffaha said the expenditure was linked to another class action she was running.
It’s also up to the organiser to tell potential supporters the prospects of success of the case. Buckley claims that a vaccine requirement for construction workers in NSW is unconstitutional because only the Commonwealth has the power to enforce such a mandate. However, Australian Catholic University dean of law and constitutional law Professor Patrick Keyzer says such an argument doesn’t hold water.
“My guess is that a constitutional challenge to state legislation requiring construction workers would be likely to fail,” he told the AFR.
Despite organisers sometimes promising these challenges have a good chance of success, many of those who claim they’ve chipped in seem to be motivated by the principle of challenging these laws and are not worried about the chances of success. When challenges are unsuccessful or crowdfunding fails to reach a certain milestone, many involved say they don’t want their money back or they’re happy for it to be carried over to another challenge.
“Yo people don’t even think about pulling out we need this. Win or loose it’s worth the gamble. Think of the money you put in as telling the so called leaders to get fucked,” a contributor wrote in one of Buckley’s Facebook groups.
These crowdfunded challenges have angered other people in these fringe communities. There’s been increasing scrutiny on Buckley’s fundraising from at least one prominent member of the Australian anti-vaxxer community, who Crikey has chosen not to name to avoid spreading their misinformation further, and someone has created an anonymous Telegram channel scrutinising Buckley’s conduct.
Recent developments mean that the legality of broad vaccine requirements looks unlikely. The Fair Work Ombudsman released advice making it clear that industries could enforce it only if it was “lawful and reasonable”. Now the NSW government has caved to pressure from backbenchers, allowing tradespeople to either get vaccinated or undergo rapid antigen testing for the virus.
These developments had nothing to do with any of the myriad legal challenges. Teffaha remains disbarred but is trying to organise a new COVID class action. Buckley says he’s found a plaintiff for his NSW vaccine construction mandate challenge but is still looking for more. Other law firms have yet to take any concrete steps to legal action.
But that hasn’t stopped them promoting their causes online. And the donations keep on rolling in.
Correction: The article wrongly stated that some people who contributed to Ms Teffaha’s national COVID-19 class action have received funds. While corrections have been requested, they have not been processed.