Finalisation of legal problems
Manner of finalisation
The LAW Survey confirms previous findings that there is no ‘rush to law’ (Consortium 1994; Coumarelos et al. 2006; Dignan 2006; Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001; HKDOJ 2008; Ignite Research 2006; Maxwell et al. 1999; Murayama 2007; Pleasence 2006; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004). Less than 10 per cent of legal problems across jurisdictions were finalised via court or tribunal proceedings or via formal dispute resolution or complaint-handling processes. In each jurisdiction, the LAW Survey also replicates previous results that legal problems are more commonly finalised via agreement with the other side (27–32%), via the respondent not pursuing the matter further (28–31%) or via the decision or action of other agencies, such as government bodies, insurance companies or the police (13–17%; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001; Ignite Research 2006; Maxwell et al. 1999; Pleasence 2006; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004).
According to chi-square analyses, the manner in which legal problems were finalised depended on their characteristics. First, problem severity was related to manner of finalisation. In most jurisdictions, substantial problems were significantly more likely than minor problems to be finalised via court or tribunal proceedings, and via formal dispute resolution or complaint-handling processes. Second, the type of legal problem influenced manner of finalisation. Like past surveys, the LAW Survey found that family problems were significantly more likely to conclude via court or tribunal proceedings, while consumer problems were significantly more likely to conclude via agreement with the other side (Dignan 2006; Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001; Ignite Research 2006; Maxwell et al. 1999; Pleasence 2006; Sweeney Research 2011; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004). To some extent, these findings appear to reflect the more serious nature of family problems compared to consumer problems (cf. Pleasence 2006).
In addition, the strategy used in response to legal problems appeared to affect the manner of finalisation. In keeping with Pleasence (2006), there was a tendency across jurisdictions for problems involving advice to be finalised relatively more often via court or tribunal proceedings, and for problems handled without advice to be finalised relatively more often via agreement with the other side.(87)
Problems involving advice also tended to be finalised relatively more often via formal dispute resolution or complaint-handling processes. Again, these findings may partly reflect the use of more formal resolution methods for more serious problems (Pleasence 2006).
Across jurisdictions, roughly two-thirds of legal problems (62–68%) were finalised by the time of interview. The modest differences in the finalisation rates between jurisdictions were significant when analysed using a chi-square test. NSW had a lower than average finalisation rate, and the Northern Territory and the ACT had higher than average rates.(88)
A regression analysis indicated that the lower finalisation level in NSW is unlikely to be due solely to differences in demographic profiles, the legal problems experienced and the strategies used to resolve these problems.(89)
The lower NSW finalisation rate may additionally reflect factors such as differences in culture, attitudes, systems of law, and legal or social services. However, the regression found that the higher finalisation rates in the Northern Territory and the ACT can be explained by differences in demographics, problem profiles and strategies.(90)
For example, compared to the other states, both the Northern Territory and the ACT have a younger population (ABS 2007a, 2008e). In addition, the Northern Territory was found to have the highest prevalence of crime problems and a significantly higher rate of inaction. Typically, young people, crime problems and inaction were all significantly associated with high levels of finalisation, as will be discussed in the next section. In addition, it is worth noting that the similar finalisation rates in these two jurisdictions do not necessarily imply the use of similar resolution methods or similar levels of legal capability. In fact, there were some apparent differences in the reasons why respondents did nothing or abandoned attempts at resolution. Cost and not knowing what to do were less likely to be cited as reasons for doing nothing in the ACT, while cost was more frequently endorsed as a reason for doing nothing in the Northern Territory.(91)
These results are consistent with higher disadvantage in the Northern Territory and also with greater affluence and legal capability in the ACT.
Predicting finalisation status of legal problems
In each jurisdiction, a regression was conducted to reveal the legal problem characteristics, strategies and demographic characteristics related to lower levels of finalisation at the time of interview.(92)
Although regression analysis can be used to show where relationships exist, it cannot explain any relationships. Nonetheless, the regressions on finalisation status help to pinpoint the types of problems and demographic groups which may particularly benefit from initiatives that facilitate legal resolution, and they also help to identify the strategies to be encouraged. Table 9.6 provides a summary of these models. Consistently, the characteristics of legal problems were significantly related to their finalisation status, with problem group invariably being a strong predictor. The strategy used in response to legal problems was also a reliably significant and strong predictor of finalisation status. In contrast, with the exceptions of age and disability status, most demographic characteristics were not consistently related to finalisation status. In addition, when demographic characteristics were significant, they were usually weaker predictors than both problem group and strategy. The regression results on finalisation status are further detailed below.
Legal problem characteristics
The characteristics of legal problems were related to whether they had been finalised by the time of interview. First, the regressions revealed that problem group significantly predicted finalisation status in all jurisdictions (see Table 9.6) and was usually the strongest predictor. Most notably, family problems had significantly lower odds of finalisation in all jurisdictions and, in fact, had the lowest percentages of finalisation in each jurisdiction. Past surveys have similarly found low resolution rates for family problems (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Genn 1999; Ignite Research 2006; Pleasence 2006). In most jurisdictions, credit/debt, government and money problems also had significantly lower odds of finalisation, while accidents and crime problems had significantly higher odds of finalisation (see Table 9.6).(93)
Table 9.6: Regression summaries — finalisation status of legal problems, each jurisdiction [click to enlarge]
Second, the recency of legal problems predicted finalisation status in the regressions in most jurisdictions, although its effect was relatively weak. Problems that had persisted for at least seven months were significantly more likely than other problems to be finalised in all jurisdictions except Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory (see Table 9.6).
Third, other types of statistical analyses showed that the severity of legal problems was also linked to finalisation status. Substantial problems invariably had lower finalisation rates, according to chi-square analyses in each jurisdiction.(94)
In addition, legal problems that resulted in a greater number of adverse consequences had lower finalisation rates, according to Somers’ d analyses in each jurisdiction.(95)
Although Pleasence (2006) measured problem duration rather than rate of finalisation, he similarly showed that severe problems had longer durations.
The strategy adopted in response to legal problems was consistently related to finalisation status in the regressions. In fact, after problem group, strategy was generally the next strongest significant predictor of finalisation status. In all jurisdictions, legal problems where no action was taken had the highest percentages of finalisation, followed by legal problems handled without advice and then by legal problems where advice was sought. These percentages produced significantly lower odds of finalisation for both seeking advice and handling problems without advice compared to taking no action in all jurisdictions (see Table 9.6). A few past studies have similarly found that problems handled without advice were finalised more quickly than those involving advice (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Genn 1999; Pleasence 2006). It has been argued that this link between problem duration and strategy may partly reflect problem severity. People may handle legal problems alone when they are less serious or complex but seek advice for legal problems that are important and difficult to resolve (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Pleasence 2006). However, seeking advice may also prolong finalisation for other reasons, including the simple fact that successfully locating, contacting and consulting with an appropriate adviser takes time.
The present high odds of finalisation for legal problems where no action was taken contrast with a few previous studies which have reported lower resolution rates for such problems (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Genn 1999; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004). This discrepancy may partly reflect measurement differences. Unlike the LAW Survey, the previous surveys tended to focus on ‘resolution’ (e.g. via adjudication or agreement) rather than ‘finalisation’ and, thus, tended to exclude abandoned problems from their definition of resolved problems.(96)
Differences in the type or severity of the problems captured, due, for example, to different triviality thresholds, may also have affected the level of finalisation/resolution where no action was taken.
Age, gender and disadvantaged groups
The regressions revealed some significant relationships between the finalisation status of legal problems and various demographic characteristics. However, unlike problem group and strategy, most demographic characteristics were not consistently related to finalisation status across jurisdictions, and their effects were usually weaker.
With the exception of Western Australia, gender was not significantly related to finalisation status (see Table 9.6). Age, however, was significantly related to finalisation status in most jurisdictions. In addition, when age was significant, it was the strongest of the demographic predictors, although it was consistently a weaker predictor than problem group and usually also a weaker predictor than strategy. Generally, the two youngest age groups had the highest percentages of finalised legal problems. These percentages resulted in younger people having significantly higher odds of finalisation compared to the oldest age group in all jurisdictions apart from Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory (see Table 9.6). Similarly, a few past studies have found lower resolution rates for the middle or older age groups (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Genn 1999).
The indicators of disadvantage were also sometimes related to lower finalisation levels, although their effects were invariably weaker than problem group and strategy. In Australia as a whole, apart from unemployment and living in remote areas, all other indicators of disadvantage were linked to lower odds of finalisation. Indigenous respondents, people with a disability, people who had not finished school, single parents, people who lived in disadvantaged housing, people whose main source of income was government payments and people with a non-English main language all had significantly lower odds of finalisation. However, no more than a few indicators of disadvantage were significantly related to lower finalisation levels in each state/territory. In fact, in Queensland and South Australia, none of the indicators of disadvantage were significantly related to lower finalisation levels (see Table 9.6). As already noted, fewer significant findings at state/territory level were expected, due to the smaller sample sizes. People with a disability were the only disadvantaged group that had significantly lower finalisation levels in most jurisdictions (see Table 9.6).(97)
The present finding that people with a disability were the disadvantaged group that most consistently had low odds of finalisation complements other findings from the present survey. As discussed earlier, people with a disability were also the disadvantaged group that most consistently had increased vulnerability to legal problems according to a wide variety of measures in all jurisdictions, and the disadvantaged group that tended to seek advice when they took action in some jurisdictions. The NSWNLS similarly found that people with a disability stood out as the most vulnerable of the disadvantaged groups investigated (Coumarelos et al. 2006).
Similarly, past surveys have provided some evidence of a link between disadvantage and resolution, but a significant link has not emerged in all studies or for all indicators of disadvantage. For example, a few studies have found a relationship between low resolution rates and low levels of education, low income, unpaid work or welfare benefits (Genn 1999; Maxwell et al. 1999; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004). However, Genn and Paterson (2001) found no significant relationship between demographic factors and resolution in their regression,(98)
and Coumarelos et al. (2006) found that disability was the only indicator of disadvantage related to lower resolution rates in their regression.
87. A significance test was not conducted on these findings. See Chapter 7, ‘Manner of finalisation of legal problems’ section, for further details.
88. x2=38.17, F7,71 877=4.30, p=0.000. See Appendix Figure A9.8.
89. The Australian logistic regression model on finalisation (see Table 7.7 in the Australian LAW Survey report) was re-run with the addition of state/territory as a potential predictor variable or ‘fixed effect’. See Appendix Tables A2.8 and A2.9 (model 7b) for further details and Appendix Table A9.5 for the full results. The chi-square test examined finalisation rates given states’/territories’ actual profiles in terms of demographics, problems experienced and strategies used. In contrast, the regression estimated the odds of finalisation if states/territories had identical profiles on the demographics, problem characteristics and strategies examined in the model. The regression showed that NSW still had significantly lower levels of finalisation once its profile had been taken into account according to the variables examined in the model.
90. The regression showed that the Northern Territory and the ACT no longer had significantly higher levels of finalisation after their profiles had been taken into account.
91. Significance testing was not conducted on these data.
92. The model on finalisation status in each jurisdiction was comparable to the Australian model shown in Table 7.7. Further details are provided in Appendix Tables A2.8 and A2.9 (model 7a), while the full results are provided in the LAW Survey report for the relevant jurisdiction.
93. All of these findings were significant in NSW, Victoria, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Australia as a whole.
94. See Figure 7.2 in the LAW Survey report for each jurisdiction for the full results.
95. See Table 7.1 in the LAW Survey report for each jurisdiction for the full results.
96. Legal problems that were reported to be ‘now over’ as a result of either the other side or the respondent not pursuing the matter further were included within the category of finalised legal problems in the LAW Survey. See Appendix A1, questions A34 and A35.
97. For education, compared to post-school graduates, people who had not finished school had significantly lower odds of finalisation in the Northern Territory and Australia as a whole, and people who had finished only Year 12 had significantly higher odds of finalisation in Western Australia. Although significance was not reached in other jurisdictions, the percentages showed similar trends in most jurisdictions. Specifically, in seven jurisdictions (with the exceptions of Western Australia and the ACT), people who had not finished school had the lowest percentages of finalisation. In addition, in eight jurisdictions (with the exception of the Northern Territory), people who had finished only Year 12 had the highest percentages of finalisation.
98. However, Genn and Paterson (2001) noted that this regression result may have been due to the small numbers, given that chi-square analysis revealed a link between low educational attainment and low resolution.