Collective Actions: UK Guide

Insight Hero Image

    This guide explains the mechanisms available in the English courts for bringing collective actions and goes on to look at the status of current initiatives that are focusing on collective actions.

    Collective actions, or "class actions", are where multiple claimants with claims sharing common characteristics seek a remedy against the same defendant or multiple defendants. The English courts have various types of procedures for collective litigation, and recent reforms have added to these with new procedures available for collective consumer and competition claims. 

    These, together with other procedural and substantive features available to litigants in the English courts, may explain why England is conventionally regarded as fertile ground for collective claims. 

    This guide provides an overview of the various mechanisms currently available in the English courts for collective actions. It concludes with a look at current trends, in particular the hotspots for collective actions and the drivers behind the perceived increase in collective actions.

    Collective actions in the English courts

    The potential for collective actions arises whenever an alleged wrong causes loss to a group of people in a similar way. The English court rules provide various procedural mechanisms for these collective actions, and these are listed below. 

    Until October 2015 these mechanisms all shared a common feature: they operated on an opt-in basis. As such, claimants must elect to join the action in order to be considered a member of the class and share in any damages recovered. This contrasts with an opt-out regime, whereby an action can be pursued on behalf of a class of unnamed, and even unidentified, claimants who are deemed included in the action unless they have specifically opted out. While any claims brought in the English courts can still only be brought on an opt-in basis, collective actions for damages for infringement of competition law can be brought on an opt-out basis in the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT). The significance of this is explored below.

    Group litigation order (GLO)

    GLOs were introduced as part of the new English civil procedural rules introduced in April 1999 (the CPR), although they had been in existence on a more informal basis for some time. A GLO is made under CPR 19 for claims which "give rise to common or related issues of fact or law" (otherwise known as GLO issues). The claims are brought as a group, usually with at least ten claimants and often using the same lawyers.

    All claimants wishing to join the group litigation must apply to be entered on the group register (i.e. they must "opt in") by a date specified by the court. A GLO will not be permitted if the court considers it more appropriate that the claims are consolidated or for there to be a "representative action" (see below). Judgment on one or more of the GLO issues then binds all of the claimants on the group register – any non-GLO issues (such as individual levels of compensation) will be determined in each individual case.

    GLOs have been issued in a range of areas, including product liability, personal injury, tax and insurance. A list of GLOs is published on the English courts website. Take-up of GLOs has been modest, which many commentators attribute to the lack of an opt-out system. 

    Representative actions

    Representative actions may be made by (or against) one or more persons who have the "same interest" in a claim (CPR 19.6). One or more of them can then be representatives of any other persons who have that same interest, i.e. the named claimant or defendant prosecutes or defends an action both on behalf of itself and on behalf of a class of individuals. Members of the represented class are not joined to the action and are therefore not automatically subject to disclosure or costs obligations. Any judgment or order given is binding on all persons represented but can only be enforced by or against a person who is not a party to the claim with the permission of the court. The "same interest" requirement has traditionally been interpreted restrictively, as reflected in the Court of Appeal judgment in Emerald Supplies Ltd v British Airways Plc.1  However, in a subsequent Court of Appeal decision (Lloyd v Google2), the Court allowed a representative claim on behalf of 4.4 million iPhone users to proceed on the basis that the claimants had disavowed any reliance on facts specific to individuals (and were claiming a uniform per capita sum). It could therefore be said that all claimants sustained the same loss - the loss of control over their browser generated information.3 The Court concluded that the represented class had the same interest and that it was "impossible to imagine that Google could raise any defence to one represented claimant that did not apply to all others" (class members would not have the same interest if defences were available in answer to claims by some but not others). 

    The Court of Appeal's decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, who heard the case in April 2021. At the time of publication, the Supreme Court's decision is still pending.  

    Representative actions for breach of competition law

    The Secretary of State has the right to submit "super-complaints" to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).The aim is to give consumers greater strength to bring complaints. The consumer organisations collate individuals' complaints, ascertain whether there is a competition law issue that significantly harms consumer interest to be addressed and, if there is, present the claim on the consumers' behalf. The CMA may take enforcement action, launch a market study, or refer the complaint to a sector regulator.

    Collective actions on an opt-out basis before the CAT

    Section 47B of the Competition Act 1998 (as amended by schedule 8, paragraph 5 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015) came into force on 1 October 2015 and enables consumers and businesses to bring a private action for damages for losses suffered as a result of an infringement of UK competition law on an opt-out basis, i.e. on behalf of an entire class of claimants (other than those who have expressly opted out of the action), without the need to identify every individual claimant. 

    The introduction of an opt-out regime was controversial and, during the consultation process, many expressed fears that it would result in a US-style class action culture. However, protective measures have been put in place, including the retention of the "loser pays" costs regime and a strict certification process requiring the CAT to grant a Collective Proceedings Order (CPO) before a collective action can proceed. Claims will only be permitted to proceed on an opt-out basis if the CAT is satisfied that certain requirements have been met, and that an opt-out process is the most suitable way of bringing the proceedings. The use of damages-based agreements (contingency fee retainers) is also prohibited in opt-out collective proceedings. 

    In December 2020, the Supreme Court clarified the approach the CAT should take towards certification. In its judgment in Merricks, which concerned a 'follow-on' claim for damages ensuing from a 2014 infringement decision issued by the European Commission, the Supreme Court confirmed that the CAT was applying the correct test but too strictly and remitted the case back to the CAT for reconsideration.5 In August 2021, the CAT subsequently certified the Merricks CPO, and shortly afterwards went on to certify the UK's first ever 'standalone' collective competition claim (i.e., where no infringement decision has been made by a competition regulator) against BT Group plc.6 The BT CPO decision has widened the potential scope for certification, and indicates the CAT's willingness to certify both 'follow-on' and 'standalone' damages claims. Various other collective actions claims lodged at the CAT were suspended pending judgment in Merricks, including against Google and Apple, and it remains to be seen whether these will progress in the same way. 

    The opt-out regime is complemented by an opt-out collective settlement regime, which requires parties who want to settle opt-out collective proceedings to submit their proposed settlement to the CAT for approval. If approved, the settlement will be binding on all members of the class, with the exception of those who expressly opt out within a specified time frame. Opt-out collective settlement is available at a very early stage, before the CAT has concluded its certification process. The details of the new regime are set out in the revised CAT rules. 

    Test case/multiple claimants

    Although not strictly speaking a formal collective action procedure, another way in which the courts can manage a multiplicity of claims efficiently is via the use of test cases. The CPR provides the English courts with sufficient powers to manage litigation so that where there are a large number of claims, each raising common factual or legal issues, one or a small number can be selected and determined in court. Examples include the bank charges litigation and the DePuy metal hip-implant case.7

    The selection of those actions to go forward is decided by the parties rather than the court, but the court has the power to stay the rest of the claims either on its own initiative or with the parties' consent. The outcome of the test case takes precedence over the stayed or any future actions; it does not in itself finally determine those proceedings. 

    An alternative is the inclusion of a large number of claimants to the action. There have been several cases where thousands of claimants have together brought proceedings; recent examples include the high-profile environmental claims brought against resources companies in respect of their overseas operations.

    UK collective actions going forward

    The Supreme Court ruling in Merricks and the CAT's subsequent certification of the Mastercard and BT CPOs are likely to offer encouragement to those seeking to bring both 'follow-on' and 'standalone' opt-out proceedings in the CAT. In particular, the reminder that the courts must not expect too much at an early stage of proceedings and that the availability and/or complexity of data does not provide a basis to decline to make a CPO suggests that the threshold for certification will now be lower. A number of claims are currently listed for hearing, including the UK Trucks claim and the competing FX trading cases against a number of the banks, as well as significant claims against Google and Apple, which were recently filed. 

    Current trends

    While protections remain in place to prevent the emergence of a US-style class action culture, there has undoubtedly been an increase in the number and size of collective actions brought in the English courts and the CAT. It is no coincidence that the same period has seen a growth in the third party funding market in the UK, and in the niche (often US-based) law firms prepared to bring such cases. 

    Looking forward, we expect to see this increase continue. In particular, the following areas are likely to see growth:

    • Consumer claims: Now that the Supreme Court has clarified the appropriate test to be used in certification proceedings in Merricks, we expect to see increased use of the opt-out procedure in the CAT. Other high-profile consumer actions in the English courts include Volkswagen's "dieselgate" and the Ryanair flights cancellation case.
    • GDPR and personal data claims: Cases such as those brought by Austrian privacy advocate Max Schrems and his lobbying group NOYB demonstrate the potential reach of GDPR claims. Should data breaches such as those that affected British Airways, Facebook and Marriott International occur again and result in the improper disclosure of personal data, this could be fertile soil for collective actions. However, much will depend on the Supreme Court's decision in Lloyd v Google and a number of claims (including against YouTube, TikTok and Facebook) have been stayed pending the outcome of that case.
    • Environmental claims: There has been an increase in cases seeking redress against UK-based multinational corporations for the actions of their subsidiaries overseas. Following a Supreme Court judgment where the Court found that circumstances meant that England was the appropriate forum for claims brought by 1,826 Zambian citizens,8 we may see an increase in these types of claims going forward. However, there can be procedural challenges in bringing environmental claims, as demonstrated by the Court of Appeal decision in Jalla v Shell,9 where the Court refused permission for a claim brought on behalf of more than 27,800 individuals to proceed as a representative action pursuant to CPR 19.6. In light of this decision, representative actions are likely to remain challenging for claimants looking to bring opt-out environmental claims given the need to prove individual loss and causation often inherent in advancing claims of this nature.
    • Shareholder claims: Another area that has seen increased activity is actions brought by shareholders against companies for breaches of financial services law and more general company law. Recent high-profile examples include the RBS Rights Issue litigation (which settled shortly before trial), the Lloyds/HBOS litigation (judgment given in November 2019 – the claimants were unsuccessful) and the Tesco shareholder litigation (settled shortly before trial). The growth in claimant law firms and third party funding looks set to ensure an increase in these types of claims.

    1. [2010] EWCA Civ 1284. The claimants were importers of cut flowers and sought damages from BA, alleging that BA had entered into a cartel with other airlines to inflate the price of air-freight services (BA was under investigation by the European Commission for its alleged involvement in a cartel in the provision of air-freight services). In the High Court the claimants split their claim between a claim on their own behalf and as representatives of all other direct or indirect purchasers of air-freight services who suffered damages as a consequence of BA's alleged anti-competitive activity. This second limb of claim effectively amounted to an almost limitless class of potential claimants and was, essentially, asserting a right to bring an uncertified US-style class action. Since the criteria for inclusion in the class would depend upon the outcome of the action itself, the Court of Appeal affirmed the original High Court finding that it was not convenient or conducive to justice that actions should be pursued on behalf of persons who cannot be identified before the judgment in the action, and perhaps not even then. They did not satisfy the "same interest" test and, as such, the Court dismissed the appeal. While the judgment demonstrates the English judiciary's reluctance to countenance use of the representative procedure to facilitate class actions generally, the case has previously been cited by some commentators as an example of the shortcomings of the collective action mechanisms currently available in the English courts.
    2. [2019] EWCA Civ 1599. Mr Lloyd alleged that Google acted in breach of its duties as a data controller under section 4 of the Data Protection Act 1998, by using a "workaround" on Apple's Safari browser, which permitted Google to bypass Safari's blocking of third party cookies and collect and use the browser generated information.
    3. At [75] and [77].
    4. Conferred by section 11 of the Enterprise Act 2002.
    5. The Supreme Court considered that the relevant question was whether it was appropriate to combine individual claims into collective proceedings, and not whether they were sufficiently arguable as a matter of substantive merits to proceed: Mastercard Incorporated and others v Walter Hugh Merricks CBE [2020] UKSC 51.
    6. Justin Le Patourel v BT Group Plc [CAT 1381/7/7/21].
    7. The Office of Fair Trading v Abbey National Plc & Others [2009] UKSC 9; Colin Gee and others v DePuy International Limited [2018] EWHC 1208 (QB).
    8. Vedanta Resources plc v Lungowe and ors [2019] UKSC 20.
    9. Jalla & Anr v Shell International Trading & Anr [2021] EWCA Civ 1389.

    The information provided is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all developments in the law and practice, or to cover all aspects of those referred to.
    Readers should take legal advice before applying it to specific issues or transactions.


    Stay ahead with our business insights, updates and podcasts

    Sign-up to select your areas of interest