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In Law, what is Barratry?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2016
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The term “barratry” has several different legal meanings. In criminal and civil law, the term is used to describe cases in which a lawyer files suit for reasons of personal gain, and it is barred by law in many regions of the world. Lawyers who are convicted of barratry can be disbarred and forbidden from practicing law. In admiralty law, also known as maritime law, barratry is an action undertaken by the crew or master of a vessel which results in financial damages for the owner of a vessel, and it is also illegal.

In the civil and criminal sense, barratry can take several forms. One example is a case in which a lawyer repeatedly files nuisance suits, suits which lack legal merit. These suits may be filed for the purposes of harassment, or with the goal of extracting funds which will be used for gain by the lawyer. Another type of barratry involves actively soliciting clients, an action which is forbidden whether a lawyer does it directly or pays someone else for referrals.

This type of barratry is sometimes pejoratively called “ambulance chasing,” in a reference to the fact that it is commonly associated with personal injury lawyers who seek out people who have been in accidents and suggest that they file suit. Whether a lawyer directly contacts someone and suggests that he or she consider taking legal action or pays a runner to do the same, the activity can be prosecuted as barratry.

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In maritime law, barratry can include taking on goods which would lead to the seizure of cargo for smuggling or transport of illegal material, scuttling a ship, failing to care for cargo properly, and other actions which exhibit lack of due care for the owner's investment. The owner of the vessel can file suit against people who engage in these activities if it can be demonstrated that they were behaving in a way which would endanger the vessel or cargo.

Barratry in the civil sense can also come up in maritime law. If a sailor is injured while working on a ship and is solicited by a lawyer or a lawyer's representative, this is just as forbidden as barratry on land. Sailors who believe that they may be entitled to sue for damages should consult an expert in maritime law to discuss their options, and if they need advice or a referral, they may want to consider contacting a professional organization of maritime lawyers to find listings of lawyers in a given region.

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