In the session that just ended, the Oregon Legislature missed a chance to rectify a miscarriage of justice that was built into our legal system.

That occurred with a largely partisan vote at the end of the session, as the Senate blocked a measure to direct unclaimed class-action lawsuit proceeds to the funding legal services for the poor.

The bill, which passed the House, would have had the state courts send unclaimed class-action lawsuit proceeds to Legal Aid Services of Oregon, which provides the state’s poor with legal advice and representation.

There are 48 other states, and the federal court system, that have laws on the books that call for such class-action leftovers to go to “good public use” – meaning legal services for the poor or other charities.

An apt analogy was offered by the Register-Guard newspaper in an editorial supporting the bill: “Suppose the police arrest a thief with a dozen bicycles. The owners of only eight of the bikes can be identified or come forward to claim their property. Clearly, the courts should not return the other four bicycles to the burglar. Under a doctrine rooted in English common law, goods that can’t be returned to their rightful owners should be put to their next best use. Oregon should apply the same doctrine to unclaimed money awarded as damages in class-action suits.”

In these cases, the corporations involved have been found culpable and ordered to pay for their wrongdoings. There should be no financial incentive to not getting that money to its rightful owners – as there is now.

To be clear, the bill that came out of the House was not perfect, and there were concerns about unintended consequences in how compensation is set and who qualifies as a member of a class. The legal community was divided about it. And in the partisan give and take, Republicans felt the largely Democratic proponents were simply playing on the voters’ sympathy for the downtrodden.

Yet the inequity of the class action situation – returning ill-gotten gains to the guilty party – ought to be addressed in some form. If this bill had its shortcomings, and we concede that possibility, legislators have at least acknowledged there is a problem that could use a solution.

We hope they will take another shot at resolving it next session, and find a way to put this money to better use. It may be too much to ask, but perhaps they also can make it a bipartisan solution.

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