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State Bar Association Recommends A New Way to Help Fund Civil Legal Services for the Poor

Thursday, April 20, 2006

  • Organization: New York State Bar Association
Report calls cy pres awards a promising concept to help close the 'justice gap'

ALBANY - To help close the "justice gap" in New York, the New York State Bar Association is pursuing a creative way to secure more money to help fund legal services to the poor.

Under a legal doctrine known as cy pres comme possible, which means "coming as near as possible," unclaimed funds from class action settlements can be dispensed to groups that were not parties to the litigation. Traditionally, such funds have been used for their "next best use" - to benefit groups related to the purpose of the litigation. In recent years, however, the approach has been expanded.

According to a report issued by the state bar's Special Committee on Funding for Civil Legal Services, to help close the justice gap courts across the country have begun to make cy pres awards to programs that provide legal services to the poor. Since these programs help protect the rights of those who are unrepresented, as is often the case with class action plaintiffs, they are seen as meeting the next best use standard.

New York State Association President A. Vincent Buzard of Rochester (Harris Beach PLLC), said, "The State Bar's cy pres plan represents the development of an exciting program that will help fund critical legal services to poor and disadvantaged New Yorkers, without raising taxes or reducing support for other important programs." However, he cautioned, "Cy pres is not intended to, and cannot, supplant the need for a permanent state funding mechanism."

In endorsing the report and recommendations of the special committee, the Association's House of Delegates (its policymaking body) is committed to a four-part action plan to help create a cy pres program in New York. This includes developing a cy pres manual for distribution to the bench and bar; serving as a resource in providing information and identifying appropriate groups to receive funding; initiating a study of potential legislation or court rules that will govern cy pres awards; and working with The New York Bar Foundation to assist in the distribution of cy pres monies.

The New York Bar Foundation is the charitable and philanthropic arm of the state bar, which helps fund programs that facilitate the delivery of legal services to those in need. Foundation funding comes from the private contributions of lawyers, law firms, corporations and others.

The three primary funding streams for civil legal services in New York (federal, and the state's Interest on Lawyer Account program and the Legal Services Assistance Fund) have been victims of budget cuts and the sharp drop in interest rates. Together, they do not come close to adequately funding legal services to the poor. At current funding levels, New York's legal aid nonprofits are able to meet the needs of only about 20 percent of low-income New Yorkers.

"Our commitment to formulating a sound and responsible cy pres program is part of a longstanding state bar tradition of seeking to ensure equal access to the justice system for all, regardless of income. Advocating on behalf of greater state and federal government funding of civil legal aid continues to be one of our highest legislative priorities to ensure no one is left behind, unable to have their day in court," said C. Bruce Lawrence of Rochester (Boylan Brown), co-chair of the Special Committee on Funding for Legal Services.
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