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

The role of non-legal services

Most people have some sort of legal need and some people experience numerous, complicated legal problems. Legal needs reflect the wide range of legal rights and obligations related to many areas of physical and social well-being, including health, welfare, housing, education, employment, debt, citizenship, family relationships and policing. In short, legal needs reflect the problems people face as members of a broad civil society, and often impact on more than one aspect of people’s lives. Furthermore, legal problems are frequently not isolated events, but can interact with, contribute to, and cause further legal and non-legal problems.

The interplay of legal needs with other basic human needs suggests that bi-directional links between legal and non-legal services may be useful. Specifically, links between legal and non-legal services may be useful both for:

  • people using legal services who also have interrelated non-legal problems
  • people consulting non-legal professionals who also have unaddressed legal problems.

People in the former category may benefit from non-legal support services, while people in the latter may benefit from non-legal professionals acting as gateways to legal services.

Non-legal support services

The nature of legal needs suggests that attempts by legal service providers to deal with each legal event in isolation, without regard to its full impact or to its interconnected legal and non-legal problems, may well result in an incomplete solution in some cases. Given the overlap of legal needs with other basic needs associated with physical and social well-being, a complete solution may not only require legal advice or assistance, but also broader non-legal support services, such as support through housing, financial counselling, social, welfare, family or health services.

Thus, in some instances, individuals who seek help for a legal issue may benefit from a coordinated response to both their legal and non-legal needs. A number of authors similarly argue that those with complex or serious legal problems may require broader non-legal support to achieve effective legal resolution (Forell et al. 2005; Scott 1999; Scott & Sage 2001). For example, a recent qualitative study examining the legal needs of homeless people in NSW argued that homeless people may benefit from coordinated legal and non-legal support strategies given their tendency to experience multiple, compounding legal and social problems (Forell et al. 2005).

As already discussed, the present results suggest that people with a chronic illness or disability may well be a group who require non-legal support strategies to achieve a complete solution for their legal needs given their vulnerability to a wide range of problems and their reduced ability to resolve these problems. As noted elsewhere, the interplay of health and legal needs among this group suggests that the prevention, identification and resolution of legal problems within this group should be treated as both a public health and justice policy objective (Pleasence, Balmer, Buck, O’Grady & Genn 2004a; Pleasence et al. 2004b).

The current results suggest that Indigenous Australians may also be a group who would benefit from coordinated legal and non-legal support strategies given their elevated risk of long lasting legal problems, their increased tendency to leave their legal problems unaddressed, and, according to past research, their vulnerability to multiple socioeconomic disadvantage.

Possible methods for improving the collaboration, coordination and integration between legal and non-legal services are addressed below in the section Coordinating service provision and managing demand.

Non-legal professionals as gateways to legal services

The present study indicates that individuals experience a high volume of legal issues for which they do not consult legal practitioners or engage the legal system. When people seek help in response to an event that has legal consequences, they use traditional legal advisers very rarely. In three-quarters of the cases where individuals seek advice for legal issues, they use neither traditional legal advisers nor less formal legal sources. Instead, in the majority of cases, people obtain advice from family and friends, and from a broad range of non-legal professionals, including professionals working in medical, health, counselling, welfare, government, trade union, accounting, insurance, school and policing settings. Thus, there appears to be an informal network of non-legal practitioners who are routinely consulted by people with legal problems. In at least one-quarter of cases, the advice sought in response to issues that have legal implications is of a non-legal nature, such as medical assistance or financial advice. Other studies have similarly found that the first point of professional contact for people with legal problems is often non-legal agencies such as general welfare agencies, housing authorities, financial counselling services, schools and family support services (Pleasence et al. 2004b; RPP Consulting 2003).

As Pleasence et al. (2004b) maintain, the current informal but routine use of non-legal professionals by people with legal needs could be harnessed and used to greater advantage. Given that non-legal professionals are often the first, and sometimes the only, professionals who are consulted by people with legal problems, such non-legal professionals are ideally placed to notice legal problems. Consequently, non-legal professionals could be used to ‘signpost’ legal problems and act as ‘gateways’ into legal services (Pleasence et al. 2004b). The aim would not be to equip non-legal professionals with the skills to take over the legal advisory and assistance role provided by legal practitioners, but rather, to raise the level of legal literacy among non-legal professionals so that they can identify people who have legal problems and can encourage them to take appropriate steps to address their legal problems.

Pleasence et al. (2004b) suggest that non-legal professionals could be equipped with the necessary information resources to refer individuals to appropriate legal services or to provide individuals with basic legal information. Pleasence et al. further note that the best referring action by non-legal professionals may simply be to provide individuals with the telephone number of a dedicated generalist legal advice service. For example, in NSW, non-legal professionals could provide the phone number of LawAccess NSW or of the nearest CLC. As noted earlier, LawAccess NSW acts as a legal triage whereby individuals are given basic legal information and advice and, where necessary, are referred to an appropriate specialist legal service.

Using non-legal professionals as gateways to legal services has the potential to substantially enhance early legal intervention and resolution. The importance of early intervention in maximising outcomes and avoiding more complex problems has been emphasised in recent years (e.g. Forell et al. 2005; MacKenzie & Chamberlain 2003; Pleasence et al. 2004b).


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