Cy pres doctrine

The cy-près doctrine (/ˌsˈpr/ ) is a legal doctrine that first arose in courts of equity. The legal French term literally means "so near/close" and can be translated as "as near as possible" or "as near as may be."[1] The doctrine originated in the law of charitable trusts, but has been applied in the context of class action settlements in the United States.[2]

When the original objective of the settlor or the testator became impossible, impracticable, or illegal to perform, the cy-près doctrine allows the court to amend the terms of the charitable trust as closely as possible to the original intention of the testator or settlor to prevent the trust from failing.

For example, in Jackson v. Phillips,[3] the testator (Francis Jackson) bequeathed to trustees money to be used to "create a public sentiment that will put an end to negro slavery in this country."[4] After slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the funds were applied cy-près to the "use of necessitous persons of African descent in the city of Boston and its vicinity."[5]

Application in England and Wales

The cy-près doctrine applied in England and Wales limited the strictness of the rules of mortmain under which property disposed of otherwise than to a legal heir was subject to forfeiture in certain circumstances. Following abolition of mortmain, the modern application of the cy-près doctrine has predominantly occurred in relation to charities as these are the most important trusts for a general purpose (not private benefit) permitted under English law.

The Charity Commission for England and Wales has the statutory power to apply the cy-près doctrine on behalf of a charity where, for example, no trustees remain in a charity or the necessary mandate cannot be agreed. These powers extend to a corporate charity or unincorporated association (which the common law rules may not cover). Similar powers apply to the equivalent bodies in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The cy-près doctrine will not be applied where a charity has alternative powers to redirect its funds under its constitution.

In jurisdictions which have retained the English cy-près doctrine but do not have an equivalent state body to the Charity Commission (or in relation to foreign charities' assets in the United Kingdom), charity trustees may seek the approval of the Court to their entry into cy-près arrangements to avoid later accusations of breach of trust.

Model Code

In the United States there is a Uniform Trust Code ("UTC"), which is a model code that various jurisdictions (e.g. states) may adopt by statute.

The UTC codifies that cy-près applies only to charitable trusts where the original particular purpose of the trust has become impossible or impracticable, and the terms of the trust do not specify what is to happen in such a situation.

The UTC provides, in part, that "if a particular charitable purpose becomes unlawful, impracticable, impossible to achieve, or wasteful ... the court may apply cy-près to modify or terminate the trust ... in a manner consistent with the settlor’s charitable purposes."[6]

However, the UTC further provides that the court may not apply cy-près where "[a] provision in the terms of a charitable trust ... would result in distribution of the trust property to a noncharitable beneficiary" and also that cy-près may not be used to violate the rule against perpetuities.[7]

The UTC also contains a cy-près rule for noncharitable trusts. It provides that "[t]he court may modify the administrative or dispositive terms of a trust or terminate the trust if, because of circumstances not anticipated by the settlor, modification or termination will further the purposes of the trust."[8] This power over trusts other than charitable trusts is not found in English law, or in most common law jurisdictions outside the United States.

United States class actions

In 1986, the California Supreme Court endorsed cy-près mechanisms in class action settlements, and other American courts followed.[2] Cy-près mechanisms allow money to be used to promote the interests of class members, rather than reverting to a defendant, which could be seen as a windfall to a defendant charged with breaking the law. Judge Richard Posner has argued that the term is a misnomer in the class action context, because cy-près awards serve a punitive effect.[2] Some commentators have criticized the use of cy-près settlements; the American Law Institute's Draft of the Principles of the Law of Aggregate Litigation proposes limiting cy-près to "circumstances in which direct distribution to individual class members is not economically feasible, or where funds remain after class members are given a full opportunity to make a claim."[2][9]


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