U.S. Supreme Court considers case involving funds for legal services

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Oct. 31 in a case that could threaten the future of an important source of funding for legal services organizations and expanded access to justice.

The court is considering whether a class-action settlement in a suit against Google meets the “fair, reasonable and adequate” requirements of federal law. News reports indicate the settlement’s payouts include a $5,000 award for each of the three named plaintiffs and $2.12 million for the legal fees of the plaintiffs’ lawyers. The remaining $5.3 million was divided among six universities and organizations pledging to put the money toward improving internet privacy.

Without taking a side in the case, the American Bar Association filed an amicus brief in July that urges the justices to preserve the cy pres doctrine. This allows small amounts of money judged by a court to be undistributable in class action suits to be awarded to legal organizations and other nonprofit institutions. Such funds now provide an average of $15.5 million annually to legal services organizations, according to the ABA brief.

“If this court reaches beyond the limited scope of the question presented and imposes constitutional restrictions on cy pres awards, it will imperil these state laws and potentially deprive legal services organizations of critical funding and low-income residents of legal representation,” the ABA brief said.

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