Maryland Access to Justice Commission releases guide to help attorneys direct funds to civil legal services
The Maryland Access to Justice Commission wants attorneys to take a novel approach to help poor and low-income Marylanders who need civil legal services. The commission is asking litigators to consider directing undistributed class action lawsuit funds to legal services organizations that serve low-income individuals.
The proposal is outlined in a new publication, “Class Action Residual Funds – Enhancing Access to Justice: A Toolkit for Maryland Attorneys.”
At the end of a class action lawsuit, there are often unclaimed funds that cannot be distributed for many reasons: for example, class members cannot be located or may decline to submit a claim; or the amount due to each individual may be so small that the costs of notifying class members and disbursing the fund would cost as much or more than the fund itself. In these cases, the court may order that the funds be redirected rather than distributed to individual class members. These undisbursed monies become a “class action residual fund.” In some cases, the unclaimed funds can be significant.
Class action residual funds can often be redirected under a doctrine called “cy pres,” from a French phrase, “cy pres comme possible,” which means “as near as possible.” Under the cy pres doctrine, a court can redirect class action residual funds to fulfill, as nearly as possible, the interest of the class. Many times, the funds are given to a charitable organization.
“Using the cy pres doctrine could go a long way toward helping Maryland meet the need for legal services,” said retired Court of Appeals Judge Irma S. Raker, who chairs the Maryland Access to Justice Commission. “We believe directing these funds to nonprofit legal aid programs or to the nonprofit Maryland Legal Services Corporation, which funds civil legal aid, is absolutely appropriate.”
The “Toolkit for Maryland Attorneys” examines the cy pres doctrine, details the reasoning behind directing class action residual funds to nonprofit legal services, and provides examples from cases in Maryland and across the United States. It also provides a step-by-step checklist for litigators to consider, tips and samples of legal documents, and a list of nonprofit legal service providers in Maryland.
“We are asking litigators to read this document, look for opportunities to apply the cy pres doctrine in class action cases, and help us spread the word about this option in their local and specialty bar associations.” Judge Raker said.
“Class Action Residual Funds – Enhancing Access to Justice: A Toolkit for Maryland Attorneys” is available on the Maryland Access to Justice website at www.mdcourts.gov/mdatjc/pdfs/classactionresidualsmarylandtoolkit20121127.pdf.
The Maryland Access to Justice Commission was created in 2008 by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell to improve and expand all people’s access to the state’s civil justice system. A coalition of representatives from Maryland courts, executive branch agencies, legislators, attorneys, social services and faith groups, and legal service providers, the commission recommends changes to improve the ability of all Marylanders to use the courts effectively and to obtain legal help when they need it. It primarily focuses on expanding access to the state’s civil justice system, which includes landlord-tenant cases, divorce, child custody issues, small claims and debt collection, domestic violence, and other non-criminal matters.
Want to learn more?
Visit the Maryland Access to Justice Commission website for more information about what the commission is and what it is doing about improving access to Maryland’s courts.