A Match Made in Justice: Cy Pres Awards and Legal Aid

In class action cases (and occasionally in other types of proceedings like bankruptcy and probate matters), it is fairly common that some of the funds ordered to be paid to the class cannot be distributed to all of the class members or go unclaimed. What to do then?

Over the years, cy pres or residual fund awards to legal aid and other access to justice organizations have emerged as a good solution for all parties concerned. Whatever the underlying class action case is about, it is always about access to justice for a group who otherwise would not realistically be able to obtain the protections of the justice system on their own.

Dozens of firms and companies have helped direct cy pres awards to the CBF over the years, collectively providing about $10 million in funding for access to justice initiatives. These awards have provided millions more in direct funding to legal aid organizations serving the Chicago area as well.

One particularly significant cy pres award fully funded the CBF Sun Times Fellowship, which has helped dozens of dedicated legal aid attorneys facing often mortgage-sized law school debt to make long-term commitments to these careers.

Cy pres awards to the CBF have also provided the critical seed funding for groundbreaking initiatives like the network of advice desks in state and federal courts, the Circuit Court of Cook County’s Resource Center for People Without Lawyers, the Illinois JusticeCorps program, and the CBF’s acclaimed Justice Entrepreneurs Project.

These awards have made a big difference in improving access to justice here in the Chicago area and throughout the country, and the CBF has been a national leader in these efforts for years.

The CBF played the lead role in passing groundbreaking Illinois legislation in 2007 with unanimous bipartisan support. The legislation created a new section of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure, Section 735 ILCS 5/2-807. The statute provides that at least 50% of any class action residual fund in a state court case must go to one or more legal aid or access to justice organizations. The 50% threshold is based on the premise that while there can be many substantive bases for a class action, every case is about access to justice. The statute has become a model for many other similar state statutes and court rules.

More recently, the CBF has joined with a number of pro bono, legal aid and bar partners on a submission to the Advisory Committee on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and on several amicus briefs in cases around the country, including an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in a current case involving cy pres awards.