ContentJust Search pageLJF site navigationLeft navigation links
LJF Logo
Publications sectionJustice Awards sectionResearch sectionGrants sectionPlain language law sectionNetworks section
Just Search
Research Report: Justice made to measure: NSW legal needs survey in disadvantaged areas
cover image

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

Print chapter
Search or view whole report
View PDF

Building capacity through information and education

There is clearly a role for improved information and education about legal rights and remedies in the communities surveyed, as indicated by the present findings that people frequently ignore their legal needs and believe that taking action will make no difference. Furthermore, the frequent use of friends and family as advisers, and the high level of satisfaction with these advisers, also suggests the potential value of improving the general level of legal literacy—not only among those who are likely to experience legal problems, but also among the broader community who may be asked for advice in relation to legal issues. Rather than disrupting the established informal personal networks for obtaining initial advice, the value of these networks could be strengthened by improving their skill base in identifying legal rights and in providing informed guidance about the possible pathways for legal resolution.

Numerous past studies, both in Australia and overseas, have similarly highlighted a lack of general knowledge about the legal system and have argued for the need to enhance such knowledge (e.g. Australian Law Reform Commission 1992; Cass & Sackville 1975; Genn 1999; Pleasence et al. 2004b; Rush 1999; Scott & Sage 2001; Tilse et al. 2002; Urbis Keys Young 2002; Women’s Legal Resources Centre 1994; Worthington Di Marzio and Cultural Partners Australia 2001). For example, Genn (1999) argues that, in the United Kingdom, the emphasis in legal advice provision tends to be geared towards disaster management, and there are few information or education strategies that equip the public with the skills to avoid problems from arising or to deal effectively with problems before they escalate. Instead, education about legal rights and remedies tends to be received informally, in a haphazard and sometimes biased manner, through sources such as the media. In Australia, legal service provision similarly appears to be largely reactive. A number of studies indicate a high level of unmet legal need and some suggest that it is not uncommon for legal advice to be sought only after legal problems have reached crisis point (Fishwick 1992; Forell et al. 2005; LJF 2003; Rush 1999; Scott & Sage 2001). Furthermore, previous Australian studies have reported confusion about the legal services offered by different agencies and low public awareness of the existence of legal service agencies such as Legal Aid NSW and CLCs (Cass & Sackville 1975; Fishwick 1992; Rush 1999; Scott & Sage 2001; Women’s Legal Resources Centre 1994).

In addition to increasing knowledge about legal rights and formal legal services, general information and education strategies could also stress the many non-legal pathways that people use to resolve legal issues—justice is not solely obtained through the use of lawyers (MacDonald 2005; Pleasence et al. 2004b). Present and past results demonstrate that people consult a wide range of non-legal professionals and personal contacts, and that legal representation is often a rare and last resort.

Improving knowledge about legal rights, legal services and realistic legal outcomes has the potential to help mobilise people to respond appropriately to their legal problems rather than to ignore them, and the potential to build people’s capacity for resolving legal problems quickly and effectively. The present study confirmed that legal problems are less likely to be resolved if people take no action. As argued in the literature, improving legal knowledge also has the potential to:

  • minimise the chances of legal problems escalating or triggering further legal problems
  • reduce the risk of legal problems causing or exacerbating stress or ill-health
  • increase people’s satisfaction with the outcome of their legal problems
  • improve access to justice (e.g. Australian Law Reform Commission 1992; Genn 1999; Pleasence et al. 2004b).

There are different mechanisms that could be used to inform and educate the public about legal issues and pathways for legal resolution. A challenge for legal service providers, policy makers and government is to develop an effective, coordinated public legal information and education strategy to maximise early intervention and prevent escalation of legal problems.1 While there is considerable literature on consumer behaviour and best practice in consumer education in a number of areas such as advertising and marketing (e.g. Flowers, Chodkiewicz, Yasukawa, McEwen, Ng, Stanton & Johnston 2001; Sheth et al. 1999), there has been little systematic evidence-based research on best practice in specifically providing community legal education and communicating information about legal rights and legal service provision. In Australia, it has been argued that community legal education is often not seen as priority by lawyers, despite its potential in improving access to justice (Goldie 1997). As a result, there is a pressing need to evaluate the effectiveness of whatever new legal education and information strategies are developed, as well as to evaluate the effectiveness of any such existing strategies. Legal information is only of value if it is easily accessible, understood and used effectively, and careful consideration needs to be given to developing effective mechanisms for the assimilation of legal information by people who need it (MacDonald 2005; Scott 1999).

Some of the mechanisms for legal education suggested in the literature involve raising general awareness of legal rights and legal services in the community at large by providing generic legal information. For example, it has been suggested that basic legal information could be disseminated via school curriculums, pamphlets, videotapes, radio spots, the internet and consumer hotlines (Genn 1999; MacDonald 2005; Pleasence et al. 2004b). In keeping with the frequent use of non-legal advisers in response to legal events (e.g. Genn 1999; LJF 2003; Maxwell et al. 1999; Pleasence et al. 2004b), it has also been suggested that legal information could be disseminated via non-legal professionals, services or agencies that routinely engage the public or are available to the public at specific points in their lives, such as community health clinics, social service agencies, health and welfare professionals, government and regulatory agencies, non-government organisations and consumer groups (MacDonald 2005; Pleasence et al. 2004b). The potential use of non-legal professionals for the dissemination of legal information will be discussed in more detail later in the sections The role of non-legal services and Coordinating service provision and managing demand.

While generic legal information provides a starting point for raising general awareness and knowledge about legal issues, the literature suggests that generic information has limited usefulness when used as a strategy on its own and needs to be supplemented with more customised information or other forms of assistance to be most effective (Currie 2000; Flowers et al. 2001; Giddings & Robertson 2003b; MacDonald 2005; Scott & Sage 2001).

In particular, the literature suggests that consumer information is more likely to be useful if it is timely and relevant, that is, if it is provided at the point when a person is trying to solve a particular problem and is specific to the problem at hand (Flowers et al. 2001; Goldie 1997). Realistically, the aim of legal information and education strategies cannot be to equip the general public with the comprehensive and sophisticated legal knowledge required for them to act as de facto legal practitioners who have the expertise to resolve, on their own, every legal issue that they could potentially encounter at any point in their lives. Achieving such an aim would almost certainly be oppressively resource intensive. Instead, a more feasible aim of community legal education would be to equip the general public with sufficient knowledge to recognise when they have a legal need, and to readily identify where to go for appropriate legal advice and assistance. Thus, raising the level of legal literacy among the general public requires enhancing knowledge about both legal rights and the available pathways for legal resolution.

Perhaps the most useful step towards raising legal literacy about pathways for legal resolution would be to raise public awareness about useful first ports of call for legal information and advice, such as the LawAccess NSW telephone service and CLCs. LawAccess NSW acts a legal ‘triage’, helping to provide the general public with an initial legal ‘diagnosis’. LawAccess NSW provides information and advice about legal issues and, where appropriate, also provides referrals to specialist legal services. Wide advertising and dissemination of the LawAccess NSW telephone number has the potential to provide a simple and effective gateway to legal services, and to complement strategies providing more ongoing, generic community legal information and education.

Another step towards improving the timely access of specific legal information might be to improve people’s expertise in accessing relevant electronic legal information through the internet when they need it (Scott 1999). Although computer literacy is no doubt improving in today’s technological society, there are still sections of the community who have limited computer literacy skills or do not have ready access to the internet. In addition, helpful problem-specific information needs to be available for dissemination at the point where individuals first make contact with legal service agencies.

The consumer education literature also suggests that information strategies are more likely to be effective if they are tailored to meet the specific needs of particular groups of people rather than if they use a one-size-fits-all approach (Flowers et al. 2001). The implications of the present results for tailoring legal information strategies to meet the particular legal needs of different sociodemographic groups are detailed in the following section on Tailoring legal services for specific sociodemographic groups.

A number of authors warn that while legal education and information are necessary, they are often not sufficient to resolve legal problems, and should not be regarded as cheap alternatives to legal advice, assistance and representation (Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001; Giddings & Robertson 2003a; Pleasence et al. 2004b). Genn and Paterson (2001) point out that individuals must not only be able to recognise problems, but must also be able to identify when advice is necessary, and must be able to communicate effectively in order to act on their own, obtain advice or instruct others to act for them. Furthermore, those with poor literacy, language or communication skills, and those with complex or serious problems, may require high levels of assistance and support from legal advisers once a legal problem has been identified (Genn 1999). It has also been noted in the literature that, over and above legal assistance, some individuals may additionally require non-legal assistance, such as advocacy or support from human service agencies, in order to resolve their legal problems effectively (Forell et al. 2005; Scott 1999; Scott & Sage 2001).

Thus, the empowerment of individuals through legal education and the provision of relevant and timely legal information is often only a preliminary step towards legal resolution. The present findings also suggest other strategies that are likely to be useful in legal resolution, which are discussed below.

Note that the potential effect of increasing awareness of legal rights and resolution strategies on the demand for legal service provision is discussed later in the section Coordinating service provision and managing demand.

 Note that the potential effect of increasing awareness of legal rights and resolution strategies on the demand for legal service provision is discussed later in the section Coordinating service provision and managing demand.

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