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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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Prevalence of legal problems

Legal needs surveys have repeatedly found that legal problems are common. At least one-quarter and sometimes more than three-quarters of respondents are typically estimated to experience legal problems over the reference period. Although legal problems are common and widespread, they are not distributed uniformly within populations. As detailed below, prevalence varies both by problem type and by demographic characteristics.

Prevalence of different types of legal problems

Legal needs surveys have invariably shown that legal problems of different types do not occur with equal frequency. Despite variation in the measurement of legal problems, there is some agreement across studies about the specific types of problems that are experienced frequently and the types that are experienced only rarely. Surveys have typically found that consumer problems are very common, and that neighbours, employment and money/debt problems are also fairly common (e.g. ABA 1994; AFLSE 2007; Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Dale 2000, 2005, 2007, 2009; Dignan 2006; GKA 2006, 2008; Gramatikov 2008; Ignite Research 2006; LSNJ 2009; Murayama 2007; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010; Schulman 2003, 2007; van Velthoven & Klein Haarhuis 2010). When included in surveys, legal problems related to mental health and immigration have often been found to be among the rarest problem types (e.g. ABA 1994; AFLSE 2007; Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Dale 2005, 2009; Dignan 2006; GKA 2006, 2008; Ignite Research 2006; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010; Schulman 2003, 2007).

Pleasence et al. (2004c) proposed that the incidence of different types of legal problems largely reflects the frequency of the ‘defining circumstances’ necessary for each type of problem to arise. For example, consumer transactions are prerequisites for consumer problems. Given that consumer transactions are routine activities for most people, the opportunity for consumer problems to occur is high. In contrast, infrequent legal problems, such as those related to immigration and mental health, arise from circumstances that the overwhelming majority of people in the population either do not experience or experience rarely.

Prevalence of multiple legal problems

Legal needs surveys have consistently found that some respondents do not experience any legal problems, while others experience multiple, severe legal problems. Typically, a minority of respondents appear to be particularly vulnerable. For example, the NSWLNS (Coumarelos et al. 2006) found that about one-third of respondents accounted for four-fifths of all the legal problems reported. Studies have also readily demonstrated an ‘additive effect’ of legal problems. That is, experiencing a legal problem increases the likelihood of experiencing an additional legal problem, with vulnerability continuing to increase as more problems are experienced (Currie 2007b; Gramatikov 2008; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2004c). For example, Pleasence et al. (2004c) found that 46 per cent of the respondents who had experienced one legal problem reported a further problem, whereas 88 per cent of those who had experienced eight legal problems reported a further problem.

The types of legal problems that people experience in combination or in succession are not random. A number of recent studies have used hierarchical cluster analysis and factor analysis to explore the types of problems that tend to be experienced in combinations or ‘clusters’ (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Gramatikov 2008; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2004c, 2010). The problem clusters obtained have not been identical across studies, as might be expected given differences in the populations studied and in the coverage, definition and grouping of different problems. Nonetheless, clusters of ‘family’ issues and clusters of ‘economic’ issues have usually emerged (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2004c, 2010). For example, analysis of the CSJS in the UK consistently resulted in family, economic and homelessness clusters (Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010). The family cluster comprised divorce, domestic violence and relationship breakdown problems, while the economic cluster included consumer, employment, money/debt, neighbour, owned housing, personal injury and rented housing problems. Coumarelos et al. (2006) reported a family cluster, an economic cluster and a broad cluster. The family cluster comprised domestic violence, education, family law and human rights issues; the economic cluster comprised business and credit/debt issues; and the broad cluster comprised accident/injury, consumer, employment, general crime, government, housing and wills/estates issues.(11)

Pleasence et al. (2004c) proposed three different means by which co-occurring legal problems might be connected or related. First, the experience of one legal problem may directly cause or trigger other legal problems. Second, the defining circumstances required for various legal problems to arise may be identical or similar. For example, money transactions provide the opportunity for both consumer and credit/debt problems. Third, certain individuals may have characteristics that make them vulnerable to experiencing particular groups of legal problems, and, as has been noted, evidence indicates that disadvantage increases vulnerability.(12) Pleasence et al. also argued that coinciding legal problems may be connected in more than one of these three ways. However, it is worth noting that the co-occurrence of legal problems does not necessarily imply some sort of meaningful connection between problems. Legal problems may sometimes coincide by ‘chance’ — that is, without a connection due to trigger effects, defining circumstances or vulnerabilities. In particular, problem types that occur relatively frequently in the population (e.g. consumer, crime or housing problems) have more opportunity to coincide by chance.

The types of legal problems that tend to cause or trigger further legal problems have been examined in a few studies (Currie 2007b; Genn 1999; Pleasence 2006). Although the results across studies are not identical, relationship, injury and employment problems have tended to emerge as likely trigger problems. First, both Pleasence (2006) and Currie (2007b) suggested that family relationship problems can act as triggers. Pleasence (2006) conducted analyses to determine which types of legal problems tended to occur earlier in sequences of problems. Problems concerning divorce, domestic violence and relationship breakdown were significantly more likely to predate other problems, such as children’s education, consumer, money/debt and rented housing problems. Currie (2007b) asked respondents who reported multiple legal problems whether one problem had caused or contributed to the others. Relationship breakdown was one of several problem types that acted as a trigger and appeared to trigger debt, legal action and other family problems. Pleasence (2006) argued that it is not surprising that divorce, domestic violence and separation can trigger further problems, given that they can lead to substantial life changes. For example, they may lead to financial hardship, less suitable accommodation, difficulties in maintaining employment as a single parent and dependence on maintenance, child support and welfare benefits.

Second, the results of Genn (1999), Pleasence (2006) and Currie (2007b) indicated that injury and employment problems often trigger financial problems, and that the trigger effect of injury problems may partly result from their impact on employment. Genn (1999) documented how personal injury and work-related ill health can lead to employment problems, which in turn can lead to problems related to welfare benefits and debt. Pleasence (2006) found that personal injury was significantly more likely to occur first rather than last in a sequence of legal problems. Currie’s (2007b) respondents reported that employment problems triggered consumer and debt problems, while personal injury problems triggered debt and employment problems. Pleasence (2006) suggested that such findings reflect the financial hardship that can result from unemployment. He noted that other problem types that can cause unemployment, such as clinical negligence, immigration and mental health, might also be expected to trigger problems related to debt and welfare benefits.(13)

Prevalence and policy

The ubiquity of legal problems across studies has led researchers to stress the importance of access to justice and the utility of adequate legal service infrastructure to facilitate the effective resolution of legal problems (e.g. Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Genn 1999; Pleasence 2006; Sandefur 2008, 2009).

The key finding that legal problems often cluster together highlights the critical role that could be played by early intervention. An unresolved legal problem can trigger further legal problems, resulting in the experience of multiple simultaneous or sequential problems. Thus, early intervention strategies could be used to resolve legal problems before they reach crisis point, by minimising escalation, preventing flow-on effects and reducing the need for expensive court resolution (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Genn 1999; Macdonald 2005; Pleasence 2006).

The clustering of legal problems also suggests that it will sometimes be inadequate to deal with each legal problem in seclusion, without addressing interconnected legal issues in a more holistic fashion. This suggestion is somewhat at odds with the existing legal service practice in a number of jurisdictions. Currently, legal service delivery is often ‘siloed’ by the type of legal matter, largely because the complexity of the law has inevitably resulted in a degree of specialisation among legal practitioners (American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services (ABA SCDLS) 2002; Coumarelos et al. 2006; Forell et al. 2005; Noone 2009; Queensland Public Interest Law Clearing House 2009; Trebilcock 2008). The value of a more holistic approach to legal services is therefore indicated to better handle interrelated legal problems. Such an approach might involve improved referral systems or more coordinated, client-focused or case management approaches across legal services (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Forell et al. 2005).

11. Although Dignan (2006) did not conduct cluster analyses, he found that family-related issues were the problem types that were most frequently reported to be linked to some other problem.

12. See the ‘Vulnerability to legal problems: Vulnerability and disadvantage’ section later in this chapter.

13. He observed a non-significant tendency for clinical negligence, immigration and mental health problems to precede other legal problems, and he suggested that the failure to reach significance may have been due to small numbers.


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