$3.5M startup grant creates new Berkeley Center for Consumer Law and Economic Justice

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Deborah Chen/Staff

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UC Berkeley is launching a new center designed to help those affected by consumer law, which will be the first of its kind among top-tier institutions, Berkeley School of Law announced Tuesday.

The Berkeley Center for Consumer Law and Economic Justice, which is scheduled to open in April, will be funded by a $3.5 million startup grant gifted by campus alumna and renowned consumer protection lawyer Elizabeth Cabraser.

“Consumer law is at work all around us, every day. But it’s almost invisible in law schools,” Cabraser said in a statement. “This center will actively help protect people in the modern marketplace.”

The first of its kind among elite colleges, the center will host various programs intended to “amplify the voice of consumers,” co-founder of the Public Good Law Center and the center’s future interim director Ted Mermin said.

Specifically, the center will provide opportunities to collaborate with civil rights organizations as well as with other local consumer justice clinics, including the East Bay Community Law Center. Students can work to develop legislature, meet with boards of supervisors and become knowledgeable about the field of consumer law, according to Mermin.

“Consumer law encompasses everything from student loans, cable bills, phone bills, … (and) food marketing, to public health — just about every transaction and interaction you have with products and services … on a daily basis,” Mermin said.

The new center will also function as a focal point nationally for consumer law scholarship. More than 40 consumer law clinics across the country will convene in biannual conferences to engage in productive discussions surrounding consumer law. Mermin said the center plans to train judges, arbitrators, mediators and the public in the substance of consumer law, helping them to make educated decisions.

Practices that violate consumer law include duplicitous mortgage lending, get-rich-quick and pyramid schemes, for-profit colleges and fraudulent immigration consultants, according to Mermin. These practices have an especially strong impact on those without money to spare, making consumer law an area of social justice. Mermin added that the Berkeley Center for Consumer Law and Economic Justice aims to extend knowledge about consumer law in order to prevent predatory practices.

The creation of the center comes at a crucial time, Berkeley Law executive director of communications Michael Bazeley said. With a lack of public faith in the federal government to enforce consumer law, there is a “clarion call” for those working in consumer protection to step up their game, according to Mermin.

“I think (the new center) is fantastic,” Mermin’s colleague and social justice advocate Savala Trepczynski said. “Ted and his team at the center will have a chance to do some trailblazing and … impact consumers and human beings. Social justice is completely wrapped up in consumer law.”

Contact Jarrett Visher at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Jarrett_Visher.