The nation's consumer watchdog adopted a rule on July 10 that would pry open the courtroom doors for millions of Americans, by prohibiting financial firms from forcing them into arbitration in disputes over their bank and credit card accounts.

The action, by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, would deal a serious blow to banks and other financial firms, freeing consumers to band together in class-action lawsuits that could cost the institutions billions of dollars.

Across the country, judges, prosecutors and regulators have sharply criticized arbitration clauses for allowing corporations to circumvent the courts and for taking away tools to fight abusive business practices.

The new rule would unwind a series of legal maneuvers undertaken by major American companies to block customers from going to court to fight potentially harmful business practices.

"If this rule goes into effect, what we are going to see is a huge avalanche of litigation and a loss to consumers of the benefits of arbitration," said Alan S. Kaplinsky, a lawyer with the firm Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia who is widely considered the father of arbitration clauses.

To Mr. Kaplinsky, who opposes the rule, arbitration offers a faster and more efficient way to resolve legal disputes.

The New York Times assembled its own database of arbitrations in a series of articles in 2015 that showed that few people ever go to arbitration.

In financial disputes, the numbers are particularly startling. In its investigation, The Times found that from 2010 to 2014, only 505 consumers — a fraction of the tens of millions of Americans whose financial contracts have arbitration clauses — went to arbitration over disputes of $2,500 or less.
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