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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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Concept of socioeconomic disadvantage

As already noted, legal needs surveys demonstrate that socioeconomic disadvantage is pivotal to the experience of legal problems. Despite this relationship, research into legal needs frequently proceeds without explicit definition of the concept of socioeconomic disadvantage. In the wider empirical literature, there is a shared understanding of this concept in broad terms. It is usually broadly defined as some sort of deprivation, hardship or inequality concerning a person’s standard of living, well-being, capabilities or other life opportunities resulting from the person’s socioeconomic status (Ainley, Graetz, Long & Batten 1995; Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2004c, 2011c; Harding, Lloyd & Greenwell 2001; Marks, McMillan, Jones & Ainley 2000). It is considered to be broader than poverty, reflecting multiple types of social inequality (Arthurson & Jacobs 2003; Saunders 2003). Accordingly, the advantages of multidimensional measures of disadvantage over unidimensional measures based on income or poverty are increasingly being propounded (Harding et al. 2001; Headey 2006; Saunders 2003; Saunders, Naidoo & Griffiths 2007). However, consensus is lacking about the precise circumstances that constitute disadvantage, the definitive set of socioeconomic indicators that should be used to measure it and the levels of each indicator that mark disadvantage (ABS 2011c; Ainley et al. 1995; Marks et al. 2000). Low income, low educational attainment, unemployment and low occupational status are often seen as key indicators of disadvantage. However, a wide range of other indicators have also been used erratically, varying across time and populations (ABS 2011c). These include poor health, single parenthood, family breakdown, poor housing, poor literacy, membership in ethnic minorities, disadvantageous geographical location, residential mobility, crime victimisation, transport difficulties and no internet access (see ABS 2003, 2004c, 2008b, 2011c; Ainley et al. 1995; Headey 2006; Marks et al. 2000; Saunders et al. 2007; Vinson 1999, 2004, 2007).

There has been growing interest in the concept of social exclusion as a framework for understanding socioeconomic disadvantage (ABS 2004c; Arthurson & Jacobs 2003; Hayes, Gray & Edwards 2008; Headey 2006; Saunders 2003; Saunders et al. 2007). Increasingly, social exclusion is defined as the adverse consequences that can result from socioeconomic disadvantage, manifested as an inability to participate in key societal activities or to access generally available standards of living, rights or opportunities (ABS 2011c; Arthurson & Jacobs 2003; Burchardt, Le Grand & Piachaud 2002).

Social exclusion is commonly described as a multidimensional concept, thereby highlighting that it can have multiple causes and multiple manifestations. In terms of causes, social exclusion is seen as being driven by an interplay of demographic, economic, social and behavioural factors that are linked and mutually reinforcing (Bradshaw, Kemp, Baldwin & Rowe 2004; Saunders 2003; Vinson 2009). For example, the commonly cited definition of the UK’s Social Exclusion Unit (1997) propounds that social exclusion can result from a series of linked problems, such as unemployment, discrimination, poor skills, low income, poor housing, high crime, ill health and family breakdown. In terms of manifestations, it is argued that social exclusion can have cumulative, intergenerational, concentrated and spiralling adverse effects in multiple life areas, such as civil, social, economic, political and cultural areas, undermining resilience and interfering with the ability to participate in society or act on rights or opportunities (Arthurson & Jacobs 2003; Bradshaw et al. 2004; Headey 2006; Miliband 2006; Saunders 2003; Vinson 2009).

Social exclusion is also argued to highlight the dynamic nature of disadvantage, suggesting that disadvantage is not static, permanent or necessarily pervasive. People can move between inclusion and exclusion at different times and with respect to different aspects of their lives (Arthurson & Jacobs 2003; Headey 2006; Saunders 2003). Headey (2006) cautioned that the causes and effects of social exclusion can be difficult to distinguish, and that ‘dynamic chains’ or ‘vicious circles’ sometimes operate where an outcome becomes a cause that further reinforces exclusion. For example, mental health can contribute to marital breakdown, which might then impact on social networks as a lone parent and create difficulties in further life domains.

Some demographic groups and some geographical areas appear to be at higher risk of social exclusion (Hayes et al. 2008; Miliband 2006; Saunders et al. 2007). For example, in Australia, demographic groups identified as having a high risk of social exclusion have included sole parents, the unemployed, low-income earners, people with a disability, Indigenous Australians, public renters and the homeless (Australian Government 2009b; Saunders et al. 2007).

Reducing social exclusion has become a goal with appeal across the political spectrum. Social inclusion policies have been adopted in a number of countries, including, recently, in Australia (Australian Government 2009a; Vinson 2009). Typically, such policies focus on demographic groups that experience multiple disadvantage. To address the multiple causes and effects of social exclusion in many life areas, they propound an integrated, coordinated or ‘joined-up’ approach to service provision across numerous human services and across both government and non-government organisations (Hayes et al. 2008). The Australian Government’s (2009a) social inclusion agenda outlines priority areas focused on jobless families, children at risk of long-term disadvantage, the homeless, people with a disability or mental illness, Indigenous Australians and disadvantaged neighbourhoods. It includes a joined-up approach to improving access to justice through coordinated funding for legal assistance services and seamless access to information and services.

As will be detailed later, legal needs surveys suggest that social exclusion can be both a cause and a consequence of legal problems (Buck et al. 2005). These surveys have used a variety of socioeconomic indicators to identify disadvantaged subgroups within their samples. Like the broader literature, legal needs surveys have differed in the socioeconomic indicators they have used, the precise measurement of each indicator and the level of each indicator deemed to constitute disadvantage (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2004c). This lack of standardisation may sometimes compromise comparability between surveys.


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