Managing demand, resources and evaluation
The present findings indicate the value of a more holistic approach to justice in Australia that incorporates a variety of strategies to cater for the needs of different sections of the community, including integrated service provision for the most vulnerable groups. Implementing a more holistic, integrated approach to justice obviously requires a substantial injection of funding and resources (see Sackville 2011). The set-up and maintenance costs involved will depend on the type of service integration model adopted. Typically, service models involving greater levels of integration tend to require higher set-up costs (Fine et al. 2005). However, the cost of implementing new service delivery models needs to be considered in the context of the potential benefits and long-term savings that are likely to be achieved through earlier, more effective intervention. In the area of human services, integrated service approaches are generally believed to have long-term cost benefits, although stringent evaluations of cost-effectiveness are not often conducted (Fine et al. 2005).
The strategies proposed on the basis of the present findings have the potential to enhance prevention and early intervention by more efficiently and comprehensively resolving legal and non-legal problems before they escalate, multiply and resonate in numerous life areas. For example, service delivery that more effectively addresses the needs of clients is likely to reduce the costs related to ineffectual contacts with legal and broader human services, and to reduce the need for expensive court litigation (see Balmer et al. 2010; Buck et al. 2010b; Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Genn 1999; Macdonald 2005; Pleasence 2006). It is well established that litigation is an expensive and inefficient mechanism for resolving civil disputes (see Macdonald 2005).
However, it is important to realise that an almost certain consequence of initiatives that effectively increase access to justice is a corresponding increase in the demand for legal services. The LAW Survey demonstrates that the Australian public experiences many, often serious legal problems that do not reach the legal system. In addition, knowledge about some of the major not-for-profit legal services is poor. Thus, there are many cases where individuals are failing to access justice. As a result, there is a large ‘dark figure’ of hidden potential demand for legal services that will be activated by initiatives that successfully mobilise more people to seek legal resolution (see Genn 1999). Initiatives that increase legal knowledge and capability in the community are especially likely to affect the workload of agencies that provide initial legal information and advice, but there will also be flow-on effects to specialised services as people are directed to more specific, expert assistance. In particular, greater awareness of legal triage services and other useful first ports of call for legal information and advice would be likely to increase the demand for both generalist and specialist legal services, as would the more systematic use of non-legal professionals as gateways to legal services. Critically, any increase in demand needs to be properly managed through careful planning, monitoring, increased funding and expansion of legal services, as appropriate. The failure to suitably manage larger demand could result in unintended negative impacts on legal service delivery. For example, static capacity in the face of greater demand could result in a shift in the composition of the client group, such as an increased uptake by more capable groups effectively decreasing the capacity to assist particularly disadvantaged groups.
Many of the proposed strategies for a more holistic approach to justice require an integrated approach not only within the justice sector, but across government sectors and across both state/territory and federal governments. Thus, a more holistic approach to justice requires whole-of-government commitment. Although funding does not have to emanate only from the public sector, the effective coordination and targeting of resources are ultimately the responsibility of government (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Macdonald 2005; Pleasence 2006; Sackville 2011). The fragmentation of legal services and government across states/territories in Australia has been identified as an obstacle to implementing an integrated approach to justice (Sackville 2011). For example, Legal Aid and CLCs receive funding from both the state/territory and the federal governments. This fragmentation needs to be navigated successfully, with the federal government taking a leadership role, if a more integrated approach to justice is to be achieved (Sackville 2011).
A challenge for policy makers and service providers in developing a more holistic approach to service delivery is that resources and funding are often very limited. First, given that different sections of the community are likely to benefit from different types of strategies, careful consideration needs to be given to the optimal mix of these strategies to facilitate legal resolution throughout the community. For example, it has been argued that the level of integration needs to be carefully matched to the particular needs of client groups. Intensively integrated service delivery is likely to be beneficial for disadvantaged people with multiple severe needs but unnecessarily rigid and expensive for people with less severe problems and high legal capability (see Fine et al. 2005; Leutz 1999).
Second, some thought needs to be given to the measures and resources required to facilitate the sustainability of new legal service initiatives. The success of legal service models depends not only on how well they meet clients’ needs, but also on how well they are supported by policy, federal–state relationships, funding, infrastructure, interagency relationships, community readiness and local circumstances (see Wakerman et al. 2006).
Given limited resources, the proficient use of available resources is crucial if access to justice is to be maximised throughout the community. Evaluation is a valuable tool for guiding the efficient targeting of finite resources to facilitate access to justice. Rigorous evaluation of service initiatives performs a number of critical functions. In particular, quality evaluation can:
- determine the efficacy of programs in reaching relevant client groups and producing quality outcomes for clients
- inform the efficient targeting of resources to meet different types of needs
- inform the continued improvement of programs and the continued identification of further worthwhile service initiatives
- inform the ongoing accountability and cost-efficiency of legal service provision.
Evaluation cannot be an afterthought but must be built in at the design stage of new justice programs and initiatives. Once program implementation has begun, it is often impossible to collect appropriate baseline measures and hence to conduct appropriate evaluation (Weatherburn 2009). In addition, evaluation is necessary not only when an initiative is first implemented, but also in subsequent implementations. Numerous factors can affect whether an initiative will successfully ‘translate’ when rolled out or adapted to a different location, population group or area of law (see Hunter et al. 2009).
Thus, investment in rigorous evaluation of new access to justice initiatives is essential to ensure that limited resources are optimally allocated to meet the legal needs of the community on an ongoing basis. Ideally, all new legal service initiatives, including any adopted on the basis of the present findings, should be carefully evaluated. For example, initiatives to increase legal information, education and self-help strategies, and initiatives to increase the accessibility, integration and tailoring of legal and non-legal services, should all be informed by appropriately conceived evaluation. Sackville (2011, p. 235) argued that the numerous access to justice initiatives in Australia over recent decades have been undermined by a lack of a solid empirical foundation. He called for a more systematic approach to research and evaluation in order to ‘fit the various parts of the access to justice jigsaw together’. As a result, new service initiatives should be carefully designed, monitored and evaluated, with a focus on meeting client needs, service sustainability and cost-effectiveness (cf. Hunter et al. 2007, 2009).