UPDATE | By Betty Balli Torres, Executive Director, Texas Access to Justice Foundation
There are many ways attorneys give to access to justice efforts throughout the year; generous individual donations, worthwhile pro bono hours, and another less commonly known way is through court awards. The court awards strategy most often utilized to make an impact on justice is cy pres awards.
When class action lawsuits result in an award for the plaintiff, there are often funds that go unclaimed. These funds are often not distributed as additional funds to the members of the class who filed claims. Instead, they become a residual fund that is available for another use. Broadly speaking, cy pres, translated to “as near as possible,” is the term for finding another appropriate use for the funds. The decision as to such use is typically jointly arrived at by counsel and the court, often in the context of a settlement agreement.
In Texas, several cy pres awards have already helped advance the goal of ensuring access to justice for all. A cy pres award funded a major initiative aimed at increasing legal resources available for the public online at www.TexasLawHelp.org. With the award, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF) partnered with the Travis County Law Library to develop legal information and forms for common issues facing disadvantaged Texans. Other cy pres awards that have been secured for Texas legal aid providers help with particular areas of the law and have originated from a federal labor employment case, a case stemming from the Fair Debt Collection Act, and a civil rights case.
In the largest cy pres award donation in Texas thus far, Austin attorney J. Hampton Skelton was instrumental in designating more than $2.6 million in cy pres funds to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation and five of its grantees to support civil legal services to persons with disabilities. With these funds more than 16,102 persons with disabilities received help from TAJF-funded grantees. These grantees also secured nearly $4 million in back awards for low-income disabled Texas clients from Social Security Disability, and clients were awarded monthly benefits of approximately $350,000.
Because of the wide range of special populations that legal aid serves, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF) is an excellent steward of cy pres awards. Our grantees help more than 100,000 Texans each year throughout the state that cannot afford civil legal services. Those include victims of domestic violence, veterans denied earned benefits, and elderly citizens who may be targets of consumer fraud. Today, there are more than 5.3 million Texans who qualify for civil legal aid. Due to a lack of resources, only about 10 percent of the civil legal needs of disadvantaged Texans are being met.
If you are involved in a class action case and are unable to distribute all the funds, consider the Texas Access to Justice Foundation as a cy pres recipient to make an impact on justice. When a cy pres award is channeled to the Foundation, you can make a significant difference in the lives of Texans who desperately need free civil legal aid to protect their livelihoods, their health and their families.
To learn more about cy pres awards, their impact on justice, and sample language for settlement agreements, please visit www.teajf.org/donate/cy_pres.aspx.