What Is A Class Action

Class actions (also known as group proceedings, collective actions or representative actions) can take many forms.  A straightforward definition is that a class action is ‘a generic term for a procedure whereby the claims of many individuals against the same defendant can be brought or conducted by a single representative’: Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), Grouped Proceedings in the Federal Court, Report No 46 (1988) [1]. 

A more detailed definition is provided by Rachel Mulheron, The Class Action in Common Law Legal Systems: A Comparative Perspective, Hart, 2004, 3:

… a legal procedure which enables the claims (or part of the claims) of a number of persons against the same defendant to be determined in the one suit. In a class action, one or more persons (‘representative plaintiff’) may sue on his or her own behalf and on behalf of a number of other persons (‘the class’ [or group]) who have a claim to a remedy for the same or a similar alleged wrong to that alleged by the representative plaintiff, and who have claims that share questions of law or fact in common with those of the representative plaintiff (‘common issues’). Only the representative plaintiff is a party to the action. The class members are not usually identified as individual parties but are merely described. The class members are bound by the outcome of the litigation on the common issues, whether favourable or adverse to the class, although they do not, for the most part, take any active part in that litigation.

While the above description provides the broad contours of a class action, it must be remembered that in Australia class actions are statutory creations which operate according to their enabling legislation.  Careful attention to the legislation is central to understanding how a class action operates in a particular jurisdiction:  Michael Legg and Ross McInnes, Annotated Class Actions Legislation, LexisNexis, 2014.