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On the edge of justice: the legal needs of people with a mental illness  ( 2006 )  Cite this report

Ch 4. Barriers to accessing legal assistance

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Consultations with stakeholders and participants for this study revealed that having a mental illness can affect a person’s ability to access and use legal services. The symptoms of mental illness that may act as a barrier to accessing legal services include a lack of awareness of legal rights, being disorganised, being overwhelmed, mistrust, difficult behaviour, and communication problems. These barriers are compounded by current inadequate levels of mental health care. The above symptoms may mean that a person with a mental illness has difficulty keeping appointments, or does not feel able to even attempt to seek legal assistance—or feel that it is worthwhile to do so. Further, an inability to divulge relevant personal details may mean that service providers are unable to assist the client. Difficult behaviour may also prevent a client from receiving legal assistance.

Communication problems may mean that the client’s situation is not properly understood. Consultations revealed that if a client is unable to give a reasonably coherent account of their situation, the legal service provider may not have enough relevant information to assist them. In addition, service providers argued that communication problems can mean that the client may not understand the advice they receive. They reported that communication issues for clients with a mental illness were often exacerbated by use of the telephone.

Consultations and the literature indicate that there is a link between serious mental illness and financial disadvantage. The cost of obtaining legal assistance is therefore a barrier for people with a mental illness, and suggests that they are more reliant on Legal Aid, CLCs and pro bono legal advice. Stakeholders reported that there is a lack of availability of these services, and that those that do exist are overstretched and underresourced. This has particular implications for people with a mental illness, who may require more time to communicate their situation, and more support in general.

Consultations indicate that a lack of availability of free legal services is even more pronounced in rural and regional areas. The organisation and cost required to travel large distances to access legal services create additional barriers for people with a mental illness.

Stakeholders indicated that legal service providers may not always be able to identify that a client has a mental illness. This can be important, as the client themselves may not divulge that they are ill, either because they have not been diagnosed or because they fear being stigmatised. If a client’s illness is not known, they may not receive the time, assistance and understanding they need to access legal assistance. In addition, someone with a mental illness may be eligible for legal aid—however, if their illness is not identified, they may not receive this support.

On the other hand, service providers believed that people with a mental illness may be taken less seriously if they do divulge that they have a mental illness. It was reported that some lawyers find people with a mental illness less credible, are less inclined to believe what they say, and are more ready to dismiss their claims. Certain aspects of the physical environment of legal services were also raised as potential barriers.

These barriers indicate that people with a mental illness may need greater understanding, assistance, flexibility and time than other clients when accessing legal services. If legal service providers do not understand these issues, then the specific needs of clients with a mental illness may not be catered to, and their legal needs not met.

Service providers revealed a need for more training in identifying symptoms of mental illness, and in determining a client’s level of functionality. The need for greater awareness amongst legal service providers of how people with a mental illness experience accessing and using legal assistance was also raised. This could potentially assist legal service providers in identifying clients who have a mental illness, and in better understanding their behaviour.


Karras, M, McCarron, E, Gray, A & Ardasinski, S 2006, On the edge of justice: the legal needs of people with a mental illness in NSW, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney