Outlook: Americans are no better off – their lawyers are just richer


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Outlook Every time a bank, particularly one part-owned by the taxpayer, is engulfed in a humdinging scandal like this, one wonders: would they behave so badly if we had a US-style legal system? Would the bankers bin their morals so quickly if they knew a super-brainy, super-greedy army of lawyers was waiting in the wings to rip their legs off in court?

In the US, by lunchtime yesterday a queue of law firms with names like Grabbit, Trouser and Snivel would have launched class action lawsuits against Lloyds, Eric Daniels, Helen Weir, the auditors, the accountants, the cleaning lady. And they would have done so in the name of all the bank's hundreds of thousands of shareholders. Literally.

They would have acted in the knowledge that, were the bank to try to fight them, it would be facing a jury. And most juries are not entirely keen on bankers. In the UK, we don't have such class actions because to launch a group claim here, each and every alleged victim has to sign a client letter and pay up-front. In the US, you can just declare yourself as acting on behalf of all shareholders. Meanwhile, by reducing legal aid availability, the UK government has killed off many other potential cases by the public against corporates (and, by happy coincidence, against the government.)

It's easy to conclude, then, that the US consumer is far more empowered than we Brits to take on the giant companies who abuse us. But then you look at the scandals and rip-offs emanating from US banks, combined with how Washington always seems to favour Wall Street over Main Street, and you realise Americans are probably no safer than we are, but their lawyers are considerably richer.