A bill that would bring Oregon into line with nearly every other state in helping to pay for legal services for low-income residents passed the House on Monday. The Oregon Senate should follow suit, and the governor should sign the legislation.
When a class action lawsuit involving many plaintiffs is settled, or a verdict is reached holding the defendant liable for damages, the court contacts members of the affected class and distributes the money paid in damages by the corporate defendant. Inevitably, some members of the affected class either cannot be found or choose not to participate.
States have enacted various ways to deal with this leftover money. Because the corporate defendant has agreed to pay damages or has been found liable and ordered to do so, returning the undistributed money to the defendant essentially reduces the penalty. Many state laws provide that at least a portion of this money go to help provide legal services to low-income residents who can't afford to hire their own attorney.
The distribution of money in this way follows a legal doctrine known as "cy prés," sort for the Norman French phrase "cy prés comme possible," or "as near as possible." The idea is that money in a will or trust, or money ordered paid to settle a claim, should be used for a purpose close to the original intent if that original intent cannot be satisfied. Support for legal services is considered a close approximation to class-action damages because consumer protection cases make up a portion of legal services cases.
In Oregon, class-action payments that cannot be distributed are returned to the corporate defendant.
House Bill 2700 would change that. Half of any unspent damages would go to legal services offices around the state, and the other half to charity at the discretion of the judge.
HB 2700 would not solve the funding problems plaguing legal aid in the state. The amount of money is relatively small, and Oregon does not see a large number of class action lawsuits. But the principle is sound: Our system of justice means little if those without resources are denied access to the courts. This bill is one small way to contribute to fairness, and should be enacted.