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Justice made to measure: NSW legal needs survey in disadvantaged areas  ( 2006 )  Cite this report

Ch 10. Towards improving access to justice: a multidimensional approach

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The present study is the first in about three decades to assess a broad range of legal needs in NSW. The findings suggest a high incidence of civil, criminal and family legal needs in the six disadvantaged areas of NSW that were surveyed. Legal needs affect many aspects of people’s lives and relate broadly to the promotion of justice, as well as to the promotion of social and physical well-being. However, some people have multiple, complex legal needs, while others are more resilient. People choose different means of handling their legal issues, and some people are less successful than others in resolving their problems. This diversity in experience is better suited to a multidimensional rather than a single, broad-brush approach to accessing justice in the disadvantaged areas surveyed.

Such a multidimensional approach would not simply react to legal problems unilaterally. It would also include tailored and proactive strategies to meet the varying needs of different individuals, to maximise prevention and early intervention, and to enhance the optimal utilisation of the legal system through the appropriate targeting of limited resources. The results suggest that useful strategies for promoting justice would include:

  • more accessible legal services
  • general community legal information and education
  • tailored legal education, information, advice and assistance services to meet the specific needs of different groups and individuals
  • the use of non-legal professionals as gateways to legal services
  • improved coordination between different legal services
  • a more coordinated response from legal and non-legal services for people with multiple legal and non-legal needs.

To ensure that legal services can react quickly and effectively to legal problems, the present findings suggest that improvements could be made to the accessibility of legal services, such as additional staffing, extension of opening hours, and additional legal services in rural and remote areas.

The widespread use of friends and family as advisers when legal issues arise indicates the merit of raising the general level of legal literacy among the community at large. The substantial proportion of people who simply ignore their legal needs also suggests a clear role for proactive information and education strategies in mobilising and empowering people to resolve legal problems. Such information and education strategies could usefully enhance general knowledge about:

  • legal rights to assist people to easily recognise their legal needs
  • available pathways for legal resolution to assist people to readily access the specific information and advice required to solve particular legal issues as they arise.

It was noted that widespread advertising and dissemination of the telephone number for LawAccess NSW, which acts as a legal triage service in NSW, has the potential to provide a simple and effective gateway to legal resolution.

The present findings also suggest the particular benefit of tailoring and targeting legal information and education strategies to the sociodemographic groups who were relatively less likely to seek help for their legal issues, namely young people, older people, Indigenous Australians and people with a low level of education.

The current study also indicates the potential benefit of tailoring legal information, advice and assistance services to meet the particular legal needs of different individuals and sociodemographic groups. Some people have few legal needs and are easily able to handle their problems alone, suggesting that self-help and unbundled legal services may be appropriate in some cases.

However, other people, such as those with a chronic illness or disability, have multiple legal problems and reduced ability to achieve satisfactory resolution. This finding suggests that meeting the legal needs of this group should be a top priority for legal information, advice and assistance services.

Indigenous people were also found to be a group that is vulnerable to certain legal problems, namely credit/debt, employment and family problems, and may benefit from special attention and appropriately tailored legal services.

In addition, given that different age groups tend to face different legal issues and tend to achieve different resolution rates, there may also be benefit in tailoring legal information, advice and assistance according to age.

The type of legal issue also needs to be taken into account when setting priorities for legal service provision. The type of legal issue experienced was shown to be a critical factor in whether individuals seek advice, whether they are satisfied with the help they receive, whether they achieve resolution, and whether they are satisfied with the outcome. In particular, legal services need to allocate time and resources appropriately to deal effectively with frequently occurring legal issues and legal issues that tend to be genuinely more difficult to resolve.

However, the present findings highlight the importance of reconciling the need to provide expert, specialised legal services tailored to different types of legal problems with the need to provide a more client-focused approach for clients with multiple legal needs. Legal problems frequently co-occur, and some people, such as some people with a chronic illness or disability, simultaneously face a number of intertwined but disparate legal problems, including criminal, civil and family law problems.

A structural feature of current legal service delivery in NSW is that different legal service providers tend to deal with different types of legal issues. As a result, individuals with multiple, disparate legal problems sometimes need to access a variety of legal services. Furthermore, these services tend to deal with discrete aspects of the individual’s legal problems without necessarily coordinating to address the complexity of the situation in a holistic fashion. The overlap between legal needs and other basic human needs associated with physical and social well-being also means that some individuals with complex problems require both legal and non-legal support services. Thus, the present results indicate the potential benefit of improved cooperation and coordination not only among different legal services, but also between legal services and other human services, for individuals with complex, multiple legal and non-legal problems.

The value of a more integrated approach to legal and non-legal service provision was also highlighted by the current widespread use of non-legal professionals for advice in relation to events with legal implications. There may be considerable benefits in establishing strategies that would enable non-legal professionals who are well placed to notice legal problems to be used as an effective gateway into available legal services. For example, non-legal professionals could be used to disseminate basic, up-to-date legal information resources and to provide appropriate referrals to legal service agencies.

In summary, a multidimensional approach to legal service provision, which includes a range of reactive, preventative and proactive strategies, would enable legal services to be more effectively tailored to meet the diverse needs and experiences of different individuals. Such an approach would require appropriate resourcing and quality assurance, and effective coordination by government.


Coumarelos, C, Wei , Z & Zhou, AH 2006, Justice made to measure: NSW legal needs survey in disadvantaged areas, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney