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

1. Review of legal needs surveys

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Adverse consequences of legal problems

Several legal needs surveys have examined the adverse consequences that legal problems can have on a range of economic, health and social circumstances. Adverse impacts are common and can be severe and debilitating. First, a number of surveys have included a broad-brush measure of problem severity and have found that many legal problems have a substantial negative impact on day-to-day life. For example, CSJS respondents spent all or most of their time worrying about almost 40 per cent of legal problems (Pleasence 2006). In Canada, almost 60 per cent of legal problems made daily life somewhat to extremely difficult (Currie 2007b). In Northern Ireland, 40 per cent of legal problems had a severe impact (Dignan 2006).

Second, surveys have explored whether legal problems result in a variety of specific adverse impacts on economic, health and social circumstances. A high percentage of problems resulted in at least one adverse impact, with percentages ranging from 38 in Canada to 52 in the UK (Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010). Furthermore, respondents with multiple legal problems were more likely to experience adverse impacts (Currie 2007b). Although the specific types of adverse impacts measured across studies have varied, stress-related ill health is typically the most frequent adverse consequence (22–39%). Sizeable proportions of legal problems have also been reported to cause loss of confidence (12–32%), loss of income (13–26%), physical ill health (10–24%), relationship breakdown (4–16%), loss of employment (4–14%), moving home (4–10%) and violence (4–6%; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Ignite Research 2006; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010). An in-depth qualitative and quantitative study that examined clients presenting at solicitors’ firms and advice agencies similarly observed that legal problems caused or were accompanied by considerable stress, anxiety, physical and mental health problems, leaving clients with little energy for solving their legal problems (Moorhead et al. 2006).

Not surprisingly, some types of legal problems tend to be more severe than others and have more adverse impacts on a variety of life circumstances. For example, in the UK, approximately two-thirds or more of legal problems related to clinical negligence, domestic violence, employment, homelessness, mental health, personal injury and relationship breakdown led to at least one adverse consequence (Pleasence et al. 2010). In addition, discrimination, divorce, domestic violence, employment, homelessness and relationship breakdown tended to result in multiple impacts (Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2007b). In contrast, much lower proportions of consumer problems were found to result in adverse consequences across studies (Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Ignite Research 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010).

Pleasence and colleagues also examined the types of legal problems that are especially likely to cause specific adverse impacts. Physical ill health often stemmed from legal problems concerning clinical negligence, domestic violence, mental health and negligent accidents. Stress-related ill health often resulted from legal problems involving domestic violence, employment, homelessness, mental health and relationship breakdown (Pleasence, Balmer & Buck 2008; Pleasence et al. 2007a). In addition, an in-depth study on debt problems which used CSJS and qualitative data found that debt problems can cause a range of adverse impacts, including ill health, relationship breakdown and unemployment (Pleasence et al. 2007c).

Adverse consequences and disadvantage

Disadvantage appears to play a role not only in vulnerability to legal problems, but also in the likelihood that the legal problems experienced will have various adverse consequences. For example, using regression analyses, Currie (2007b) found that disability, unemployment, being on social assistance, having at least three children and being 45–64 years of age were associated with increased likelihood of adverse consequences.

Similarly, a link between disadvantage and the adverse impacts of legal problems has been reported by a few studies using CSJS data. First, using regression analyses, Pleasence and Balmer (2009) found that people with a mental illness were especially likely to report stress-related ill health as a result of their legal problems. They concluded that legal problems not only are associated with mental illness, but also can cause and exacerbate mental illness. Second, Sandefur’s (2008) regression results showed that CSJS respondents with low socioeconomic status were more likely to experience multiple negative consequences as a result of money/debt and housing problems. Third, Balmer et al. (2010) found that many disadvantaged groups were overrepresented among those who lacked legal knowledge and failed to obtain advice for their legal problems and then suffered adverse consequences. These groups included lone parents, people with a disability, people with a mental illness, public renters, people with no academic qualifications, welfare recipients and low-income earners.

Adverse consequences and policy

Legal needs surveys have demonstrated that legal problems can change life circumstances dramatically. The adverse impacts of legal problems on a broad range of economic, health and social outcomes indicates that the link between disadvantage and legal problems is dynamic and bidirectional. That is, not only does socioeconomic disadvantage or social exclusion increase the likelihood of experiencing legal problems, but experiencing legal problems can create, perpetuate or further entrench social exclusion (Buck et al. 2005; Currie 2007b).

The finding that socially excluded groups not only experience more legal problems, but also experience more adverse consequences as a result of these problems further indicates that promoting access to justice is likely to have flow-on effects in tackling social exclusion (Pleasence 2006). This finding stresses the benefit of quick, effective and inexpensive means of resolving legal problems before they multiply, escalate and resonate throughout numerous life areas. Furthermore, it adds weight to the proposal that disadvantaged people tend to experience both legal and non-legal problems and, hence, may benefit from the joining up, integration or co-location of legal services with broader human services, such as health, housing, financial counselling, social, welfare, family and crime victim services (Kemp et al. 2007; Moorhead et al. 2006; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2007a, 2007b, 2007c).

The considerable negative impacts that legal problems can have on people’s personal circumstances have also been argued to translate to an enormous cost to society at large. In the UK, using CSJS data, the economic impact on health and other public services of the adverse consequences of legal problems was estimated to be at least £13 billion over a 3.5-year period and prompted the Lord Chancellor to state that solving people’s legal problems must remain a priority across government (see Pleasence 2006, p. i).


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