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Research Report: Legal Australia-Wide Survey: Legal need in Australia
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Legal Australia-Wide Survey: Legal need in Australia  ( 2012 )  Cite this report

10. A holistic approach to justice

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The LAW Survey represents the first comprehensive assessment of a wide range of legal needs on a representative sample of the Australian population. This current report on Australia as a whole is part of the first series of reports on the LAW Survey, which also includes a report on each state/territory. The series presents a high-level overview of legal need and legal resolution in each jurisdiction. The findings are broadly similar across jurisdictions and are also consistent with past research. The findings highlight the value of a more holistic approach to justice that provides integrated and multifaceted service delivery across both legal and non-legal services in all jurisdictions.

The LAW Survey confirms that access to justice in Australia is fundamental to community well-being. People from all walks of life experience legal problems that can be severe and can have dramatic adverse impacts on a broad range of life circumstances. However, there is considerable diversity in the experience, handling and outcome of legal problems. Some people are resilient, while others experience multiple, severe legal problems. Some people achieve good outcomes by capably using self-help strategies, while others rely on expert advice. In some cases, people appear to have poor legal knowledge and poor legal capability, with some people leaving their legal problems unresolved. This diversity means that no single strategy will successfully achieve justice for all people. Rather, the approach to justice must be multifaceted and must integrate a raft of strategies to cater for different needs.

Importantly, the LAW Survey demonstrates that access to justice for disadvantaged people must remain a priority. Disadvantaged groups not only have non-legal needs by virtue of their socioeconomic status, but also are particularly vulnerable to a wide range of severe legal problems and are more likely to struggle with the problems they face. People with a disability are especially vulnerable to legal problems, although other disadvantaged sections of the community also have heightened vulnerability, including single parents, the unemployed, people living in disadvantaged housing and Indigenous people.

In addition, the LAW Survey indicates that integrated service delivery across legal and broader human services is critical, given that legal needs are often interconnected with non-legal needs. Non-legal professionals are routinely consulted by people with legal needs. Legal problems can cause a broad range of non-legal problems. Many people, most notably disadvantaged people, experience multiple interrelated legal and non-legal problems.

Thus, the LAW Survey stresses the value of a holistic approach to justice that is both multifaceted and integrated. It must be multifaceted in that it comprises multiple strategies to cater for the diverse needs of the whole community. It must also be integrated in that it provides more tailored, intensive assistance across both legal and other human services for disadvantaged people who have intertwined legal and non-legal needs. Specifically, the survey suggests that such an approach should include all of the following strategies:
    • legal information and education
    • self-help strategies
    • accessible legal services
    • non-legal advisers as gateways to legal services
    • integrated legal services
    • integrated response to legal and non-legal needs
    • tailoring of services for specific problems
    • tailoring of services for specific demographic groups.

Limited funding is a key challenge to developing a more holistic approach to justice that includes multiple strategies to address the diverse legal needs experienced by the general public. Setting legal service priorities to optimise the mix of strategies necessary to facilitate legal resolution throughout the community is therefore crucial.

One important consideration in setting priorities is that the system of legal services must be able to deal effectively with all types of legal problems. The LAW Survey demonstrates that legal problems vary dramatically in their frequency, severity, adverse impacts, intractability and likely outcomes. Thus, legal services must be able to handle severe, complex legal problems that require considerable resources, time and expertise to resolve, such as various family problems. They must also be able to process high-volume legal problems, such as consumer and crime problems. Consequently, legal service delivery tailored to specific types of legal problems is likely to be a vital component of a holistic approach to justice.

In setting priorities for legal service provision, the LAW Survey also underscores the importance of balancing strategies that are likely to benefit the general public or large sections of the community with strategies that are more specifically tailored to the particular needs of the most vulnerable groups.

The LAW Survey highlights the role of information and education initiatives to raise the general level of legal knowledge and capability, not only among those who are most likely to experience legal problems, but also among the broader community who are often asked for informal advice in relation to legal problems. Respondents’ awareness of some public legal services was low. Thus, the LAW Survey suggests the value of generic legal information and education, including information about useful first ports of call, such as generalist legal advice services and legal triage hotlines, and about the many pathways for accessing justice. It also suggests the value of more tailored legal information and education initiatives focused on the particular needs of different demographic groups. For example, such initiatives could be tailored for different age groups to address the legal problems typically faced at various life stages. They could also be tailored for the demographic groups that tend to ignore their legal problems. These demographic groups could be empowered to take action through information and education initiatives that help them to recognise their legal problems and direct them to appropriate advice and assistance. In Australia as a whole, the demographic groups that were less likely to take action included males, younger people, older people, people with low education levels, unemployed people and people with a non-English main language.

The LAW Survey suggests that legal information and education initiatives promoting self-help strategies are potentially useful if they are targeted at the demographic groups that have high levels of legal knowledge and capability. Many people successfully handled their legal problems without expert advice. Past findings have suggested that well-educated and articulate people often have high levels of legal knowledge and are most likely to achieve successful resolution when they handle problems alone. Thus, promotion of self-help strategies may strengthen the capability of these groups to successfully handle problems without recourse to expert advice.

However, self-help strategies are unlikely to be quality substitutes for legal advice and assistance when people have poor legal capability. According to past research, disadvantaged groups often lack knowledge of legal rights and remedies, and achieve poor outcomes when they handle problems alone. Thus, for disadvantaged groups, information and education campaigns that help them to identify their legal problems and signpost them to appropriate legal services are likely to be more relevant. The present findings in Australia as a whole suggest that older people, people with low education levels and people with a non-English main language may benefit from such initiatives, because their low levels of reporting legal problems and taking action may reflect a failure to recognise their legal needs and a lack of knowledge about the available pathways to legal resolution.

The LAW Survey emphasises that legal services could be made more accessible in order to meet the current demand. People often experienced difficulties in contacting advisers via telephone, making suitable appointments and receiving timely responses. In addition, people sometimes needed to travel large distances for face-to-face consultations, particularly in non-urban areas. Thus, extension of operating hours, telephone, internet and video conferencing services, local services in readily accessible locations, outreach services in rural and remote areas, and services in appropriate languages may all be useful.

The LAW Survey highlights the need for more holistic, integrated service delivery across legal and non-legal services, including more tailored and intensive support for the most vulnerable groups. First, the widespread use of non-legal advisers in response to legal problems confirms the potential benefits of using non-legal professionals as gateways to legal services. Non-legal professionals could be more formally trained and equipped to identify legal problems and to more systematically provide timely referral to legal information and advice services. In particular, non-legal professionals could provide people with a single, well-resourced contact point for legal referral, such as a generalist legal advice service or legal triage service. This simple strategy has the potential to provide timely legal referral without being overly onerous on non-legal workers, who have their own professional priorities.

Second, the findings that legal problems often clustered together and that disadvantaged groups frequently faced multiple concurrent legal problems also highlight the value of integrated legal service delivery. At present in Australia, legal service provision is often siloed by the type of legal problem and the legal jurisdiction, with different legal services providing specialised assistance for particular legal problems. The fragmented nature of legal service delivery is not ideal for providing comprehensive justice for disadvantaged people, who are vulnerable to a broad range of multiple, interrelated, serious legal problems. Rather, such people would be more likely to benefit from more holistic legal service provision, including not only more systematic legal triage and referral services, but also more intensive, tailored, client-centred or case management approaches, as required.

Third, the LAW Survey underlines the importance of more integrated responses across both legal and non-legal services for people who face interrelated legal and non-legal problems. The findings demonstrate that legal problems can have dramatic impacts on a broad range of life circumstances and can cause a variety of non-legal problems. In addition, the disadvantaged groups that are especially vulnerable to multiple legal problems also tend to have multiple non-legal needs, by virtue of their socioeconomic status. Thus, in addition to benefiting from a more intensive integrated response from legal services, these disadvantaged groups may sometimes require more holistic, client-centred or case management services involving a team of legal and non-legal service providers to achieve complete resolution. In each jurisdiction, at least a few disadvantaged groups experienced a broad range of legal problems, demonstrating increased prevalence of multiple legal problems or increased prevalence of problems from at least six of the 12 legal problem groups, or both. In Australia as a whole, these disadvantaged groups included Indigenous people, people with a disability, unemployed people, single parents and people living in disadvantaged housing. People with a disability stood out as the only disadvantaged group in all jurisdictions that had increased prevalence according to the measure of multiple legal problems or increased prevalence of problems from at least six problem groups, or both.

Finally, the LAW Survey findings on the finalisation of legal problems further reinforce the conclusion that disadvantaged groups may sometimes have reduced capacity for solving their legal problems and may benefit from more intensive assistance and support in order to achieve successful legal resolution. In most jurisdictions, middle-aged and older people had lower finalisation levels, as did one or a few disadvantaged groups. People with a disability constituted the only disadvantaged group that had lower finalisation levels in most jurisdictions. However, in Australia as a whole, all of the disadvantaged groups except the unemployed and people living in remote areas had lower finalisation levels. That is, Indigenous people, people with a disability, people with low education levels, single parents, people living in disadvantaged housing, people whose main income was government payments and people with a non-English main language, as well as middle-aged and older people, had lower finalisation levels.

The multiple legal and non-legal problems faced by disadvantaged groups, their often poor legal capability, their sometimes reduced capacity for legal resolution and their often low economic status together indicate the necessity of effective low-cost services to meet their needs. Given that a large portion of the legal problems experienced by the community are concentrated within disadvantaged groups, quality public legal services constitute a critical component of a holistic justice system, providing the backbone infrastructure necessary to support integrated and multifaceted access to justice strategies.

Although a more holistic, integrated approach to service delivery across legal and broader human services has recently been placed on the national agenda, such service integration in Australia is in its infancy. The LAW Survey indicates that a more integrated approach to service delivery is likely to be beneficial in meeting the diverse legal needs of the community.

In conclusion, the LAW Survey highlights the value of a holistic approach to justice that includes multiple integrated strategies to address the diverse legal needs of the whole community. It underscores the importance of a holistic approach that integrates legal and non-legal service delivery for disadvantaged people who are especially vulnerable to multiple legal and non-legal problems. A holistic approach to justice requires overcoming the fragmentation across legal and non-legal services, across government sectors and across state/territory and federal governments. Thus, whole-of-government commitment, with effective coordination and leadership from the federal government, is essential. Although a more holistic approach to justice will involve considerable resourcing and reshaping of existing service delivery, it has the potential to produce long-term cost savings by enhancing prevention and early intervention through more streamlined, efficient and effective legal resolution.


Coumarelos, C, Macourt, D, People, J, MacDonald, HM, Wei, Z, Iriana, R & Ramsey, S 2012, Legal Australia-Wide Survey: legal need in Australia, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney