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Access to justice background paper  ( 2003 )  Cite this report

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Understanding access to justice and legal needs

This section of the discussion paper explores current understanding of the terms "legal needs" and "access to justice", as well as providing further details concerning the terms used in the terms of reference for the Foundation's Access to Justice and Legal Needs Project.

The terms 'access to justice' and 'legal needs' defy precise definition. They have been used in socio-legal research in a variety of contexts, often interchangeably, and generally without explicit explanation of their meaning.

There is an argument for treating 'legal needs' as a more restrictive concept than 'access to justice'. Under this argument

  • 'legal needs' would refer to a limited set of possible actions for securing existing legal rights available within a given legal system, and
  • 'access to justice' would refer to the desire for a form of 'justice' which may or may not be possible through the existing legal system, and therefore may involve a substantial reform of the actual system rather than merely the mechanisms for utilising it.

In practice, however, the terms tend to merge, especially in the context of their functions. People do not need legal services in and of themselves. Their need is of the ends which legal services can bring about. This may be in the form of specific legal remedies, reconciliation with another party, or, quite simply, a sense of fairness or closure from some dispute.2

P Pleasence, A Buck, et al., Local legal need, Legal Services Research Centre, London, 2001.

 P Pleasence, A Buck, et al., Local legal need, Legal Services Research Centre, London, 2001.

Schetzer, L, Mullins, J & Buonamano, R 2003, Access to justice & legal needs, a project to identify legal needs, pathways and barriers for disadvantaged people in NSW. Background paper. Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney, 2002, <>