What Is Barratry?

Barratry is a legal term describing an illegal act whereby an attorney instigates a dispute or otherwise encourages the filing of a lawsuit, in order to profit from legal fees. Barratry typically involves the filing of a groundless claim in order to receive payment from clients. It is an illegal practice in all U.S. states and subject to criminal punishment and discipline by the state bar. An attorney found guilty of barratry would generally face disbarment.

Key Takeaways

  • Barratry is a legal term describing an illegal act whereby an attorney instigates a dispute or otherwise encourages the filing of a lawsuit, in order to profit from legal fees.
  • For barratry to be a criminal act, the accused must perform repeated and persistent acts of litigation.
  • A lawyer soliciting employment on a case, forcing an individual to take on a case through threat or coercion, or even beginning to work on and file a case behind someone's back are all considered examples of barratry.
  • An attorney found guilty of barratry would generally face disbarment.

How Barratry Works

Barratry refers to an attorney's illegal instigation of lawsuits with no legitimate claim. For barratry to be a criminal act, the accused must perform repeated and persistent acts of litigation. It is against the law for an attorney to look for accident victims in hospitals or at home in an attempt to solicit business. Such "ambulance chasers" could be found guilty of barratry.

The penal code in the U.S. varies by state. Numerous jurisdictions have declared barratry (in the sense of a frivolous or harassing litigant) to be a crime as part of their tort reform efforts. For example, in California, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington, barratry is a misdemeanor. The State of Texas has taken things a step further, with barratry a misdemeanor on the first conviction, and a felony on subsequent convictions.

In maritime law, barratry is the commission of an act by the master or mariners of a vessel for an unlawful or fraudulent purpose that is contrary to the duty owed to the owners, by which act the owners sustain an injury.

Examples of Barratry

Although barratry is considered a relatively obsolete practice by lawyers looking to turn a dime, the practice itself is more common in certain fields of laws than others, such as with personal injury claims. For example, some states like Texas that take barratry more seriously even prohibit lawyers from being the first to initiate contact with a future potential client (as some are feared to show up overeager to accident scenes). A lawyer soliciting employment on a case, forcing an individual to take on a case through threat or coercion, or even beginning to work on and file a case behind someone's back are all considered examples of barratry.

Barratry vs. SLAPP Lawsuits

Although barratry lawsuits are few and far between, a more common form of barratrous litigation is known as SLAPP lawsuits or a strategic lawsuit against public participation. SLAPPs are commonly initiated to censor, silence, or intimidate vocal critics by distracting and burdening them with an expensive and complicated lawsuit. They repress free speech rights protected by the First Amendment, as lawsuits can easily cost thousands of dollars. Many states have anti-SLAPP laws, which are more commonly invoked.