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Basic Information

Lawfare (a portmanteau of "law" and "warfare") concerns the bringing of repeated lawsuits against an opponent with a view to causing them expense, loss of reputation and general harassment.

The lawsuits need not necessarily be successful - although the campaign benefits if they are - the important factor is that the target be seen to be facing prosecution (the more scandalous the offence the better) and be obliged to spend time, effort and money to defend themselves. When aimed at businesses, lawfare often seeks to cause loss of consumer confidence and market share and against political entities it can also be part of an astroturfing campaign. Free world governments are also vulnerable to lawfare as they tend to be signatories to many kinds of conventions that can be maliciously interpreted to make the normal business of government actionable. US Law also codifies the idea of a Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation (SLAPP) - which consists of litigation designed to deter criticism - although these are famously difficult to apply to state action.

Historically the business of vexatious lawsuits was known as barratry and its perpetrators as barrators - Dante placed them about halfway across the second lowest circle of hell, being perpetually drowned in boiling pitch. Many would consider this insufficient punishment.

This is a particularly disreputable tactic as it relies on the target being basically law abiding and having a reputation to preserve - and not being willing to resort to less unsavoury methods (like violence) to extract retribution from the perpetrators.

Despite appearing relatively modern, this sort of thing is at least older than feudalism - both the Romans and Greeks were fond of using malicious prosecutions to attack their political opponents.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • A good tactic for the civillain to use against PCs, especially in a modern setting - he can even avoid bringing cases himself if he is prepared to spend time bribing, suborning and otherwise inciting those with real and imagined grievances. The PCs may get a McCloud speech from their superiors, but their enemies will have a vested interest in making sure they are prosecuted - or at least sued - for every single crime and tort that that speech touches on (or ignored). Their employer may also face suit for their actions, obliging them to discipline or disavow their actions.
    • This sort of thing makes the evil law firm an especially annoying villain.
    • This should be as annoying for PCs as it is in real life, leading even "good aligned" PCs to start planning the slow roasting of their opponents over a fire of legal papers.
    • On the plus side, it means that when anarchy breaks out in your campaign, it's not unbroken bad news for the PCs…
  • PCs should struggle to use this themselves because 1) it's villain behaviour and 2) if the BBEG could be brought to heel by the legal system, the PCs wouldn't be needed.
    • On the other hand, it can be an effective way of tying up a PR-conscious or corporate BBEG's money, time, attention, and manpower while the PCs set up the real attack.
    • As for this being villain behaviour, expect Mega Corps to be doing this to one another all the time.
      • Indeed - lawfare based attempts at market rigging are already common practice in corporate life, ranging from patent abuse to generalised rent seeking behaviours. These are actually more commonly targeted at smaller, insurgent companies and independents who cannot bear the cost of litigation and are thus forced out of the market or coerced into being bought out by bigger businesses. PR conscious firms will often do this by attempting to gold plate regulatory standards - thus raising the cost of market participation out of the reach of smaller players - or by colluding with organised labour in the name of "workers rights", either to block smaller, non-unionised competitors or to make the cost of hiring prohibitive. This sort of thing is why "big state" and "big corporate" are not necessarily the mortal enemies that they are often portrayed as being (nor, for that matter, "big corporate" and "strong unions"). Cyberpunk and other future dystopiae usually dial this sort of thing up to eleven - either it belongs to the big corps or it isn't a player. Fascism has also traditionally favoured economic corporatism - with business, unions and the state working together in the national interest … much to the same effect.
  • Of course, it is hilarious when this backfires - either because the prosecution becomes widely recognised as malicious, and then fails, leaving the litigant with bad PR and no justification, or because it provokes the target to successful violence (as, for example, when G. Julius Caesar reacted to the lawsuits levelled against him by effectively declaring war on his opponents. And winning - which is the important bit).
    • Unsuccessful violence may also count, as long as the lawfare practitioner doesn't get to gloat.
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