The first instances of class action cases were known as group litigation and were introduced in England in the 13th century. These cases were usually initiated when some action broke village, town, guild or parish rules and affected several people simultaneously. Group cases were the norm because it was so difficult to handle individual cases with the methods of transportation and communication that were available at the time.
In the centuries just prior to the 18th century, group litigation in England slowly came to be replaced by individual litigation. The system had shifted so drastically that by the end of the 1700s, cases involving groups had become difficult to process. Parliament was aware of the situation, and several laws were enacted to deal with the issues that would arise. Due to these laws, group litigation had become virtually nonexistent in England after 1850.
Although group litigation died in England, it survived in the United States due to the efforts of Joseph Story, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1800s. However, at the time, Judge Story felt that group litigation had no place in modern society.
In 1833, Equity Rule 48 was passed, which allowed for group litigation, known as representative litigation, to be carried out when an excessive number of similar, individual cases had been filed. Ten years later, the Supreme Court further enhanced class actions by stating that individual plaintiffs did not have to be present in court for these suits to be heard.
Early in the 20th century, Equity Rule 48 came to be replaced by Equity Rule 38, and in 1938, this new rule was transformed into Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP). Rule 23 continues to serve as the basis for class actions today, but it has gone through several overhauls since it was enacted.
In 1966, opt-out class actions became the standard, and this revision of the FRCP is considered the direct predecessor of modern class-action law. This law became increasingly important in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s when it was used by leaders of the civil rights movement, environmentalists and consumer advocates.