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Research Report: Legal Australia-Wide Survey: Legal need in Australia
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Legal Australia-Wide Survey: Legal need in Australia  ( 2012 )  Cite this report

9. Findings across Australia in context



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Response to legal problems


The LAW Survey replicates past findings that people use a broad range of actions to try to resolve legal problems. Seeking legal advice or assistance is only one of the many responses to legal problems (e.g. Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001; HKDOJ 2008; Murayama 2007; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010; van Velthoven & Klein Haarhuis 2010; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004). Furthermore, people often use multiple actions, especially for severe problems. Across jurisdictions, the actions of LAW Survey respondents included:
    • seeking advice from legal or non-legal professionals (for 49–53% of problems)
    • communicating with the other side (34–39%)
    • consulting relatives or friends (24–28%)
    • using websites or self-help guides (17–24%)
    • court or tribunal proceedings (8–12%)
    • formal dispute resolution sessions (7–10%).(54)

These actions were summarised into two broad strategies. The strategy of ‘seeking advice’ was used for about half the legal problems across jurisdictions (49–53%) and involved consulting a legal or non-legal professional, regardless of whether any other type of action was also taken. The strategy of ‘handling without advice’ was used for approximately three-tenths of problems (27–32%) and involved taking at least one type of action but not consulting a professional. A third broad strategy — ‘taking no action’ — meant that none of the above types of actions were taken. Approximately one-fifth of legal problems (16–21%) resulted in respondents taking no action.

There were some significant, but modest, differences in the use of strategies between jurisdictions. Specifically, no action was taken for a higher than average percentage of legal problems in the Northern Territory (21%) but a lower than average percentage in Queensland (16%).(55) In addition, when action was taken, there were higher than average rates of seeking advice for legal problems in South Australia (53%), but higher than average rates of handling legal problems without advice in Victoria (32%).(56) The higher rate of inaction in the Northern Territory, which is the most disadvantaged Australian jurisdiction, is consistent with past and present findings that disadvantaged groups within samples have elevated rates of inaction.(57) Regression analyses revealed that only some of the differences in the choice of strategies between states/territories are likely to be due to different demographic compositions or the experience of different legal problems.(58) Other differences between jurisdictions may also influence the strategies used, such as differences in culture, attitudes, legal or social environments, and the provision of legal or social services.

Reasons for inaction

The substantial rates of inaction (16–21%) in response to legal problems found by the LAW Survey are consistent with the rates typically obtained by other surveys (e.g. 10–33%; ABA 1994; Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Gramatikov 2008; Maxwell et al. 1999; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2004c, 2010). Past surveys have indicated that inaction often, but not always, constitutes unmet legal need. In some cases, people correctly decide that taking action is unnecessary. In other cases, they want to act to resolve a legal need but are constrained from acting (e.g. AFLSE 2007; Balmer et al. 2010; Consortium 1994; Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Fishwick 1992; Genn 1999; HKDOJ 2008; Ignite Research 2006; Pleasence 2006; Schulman 2003; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004). The LAW Survey confirms past findings. If taken at face value, some of the common reasons for inaction across jurisdictions suggest that inaction may have been sensible and may not necessarily have constituted unmet legal need. For example, some common reasons were that:
    • taking action would make no difference (56–60%)
    • the problem was resolved quickly (52–60%)
    • the problem was trivial or unimportant (39–48%)
    • there was no dispute, or the respondent was at fault (24–32%).

However, it is unclear whether these judgements were accurate, because they were ultimately based on respondents’ legal knowledge. Given the gaps in the legal knowledge of the general public, such lay judgements about the seriousness of legal problems, the party at fault and the available remedies will sometimes be erroneous and, thus, may sometimes constitute unmet legal need (Balmer et al. 2010; Buck et al. 2008; Genn 1999; Pleasence 2006).

Many of the other reasons for inaction in response to legal problems across jurisdictions more clearly signalled likely unmet legal need, suggesting that respondents wanted to act but were constrained from doing so. For example, such reasons were that:
    • it would take too long (32–38%)
    • the respondent had bigger problems (28–35%)
    • it would be too stressful (26–31%)
    • it would cost too much (19–29%)
    • the respondent didn’t know what to do (15–23%)
    • it would damage the respondent’s relationship with the other side (10–15%).

Importantly, these reasons for inaction indicate that poor legal knowledge, other personal constraints and also systemic constraints can lead to a failure to take any action to try to resolve legal problems. Although cost was one factor constraining respondents from taking action, it was not ranked in the top six in any jurisdiction.

Predicting strategy in response to legal problems

In each jurisdiction, two regression models were conducted to examine the demographic and problem characteristics related to the strategies used in response to legal problems. The first regression examined the likelihood of taking action in response to legal problems and contrasted taking any type of action (i.e. seeking advice or handling problems without advice) with taking no action. The second regression included only respondents who took action for legal problems. It examined the likelihood of seeking advice and compared seeking advice for legal problems to handling legal problems without advice.(59) As already discussed, inadequate strategies in response to legal problems can often result in unmet legal need. While regression analysis can be used to show where relationships exist, it cannot explain any relationships. Nonetheless, the regressions on strategy help to signal the types of legal problems and demographic groups which may particularly benefit from initiatives that facilitate appropriate responses to legal problems. Table 9.5 provides a summary of these models on taking action and seeking advice for each jurisdiction. Findings were similar across jurisdictions, although, again, not all of the characteristics that were significant in the Australian model reached significance in each state/territory. Typically, the characteristics of legal problems were significantly related to the strategy adopted by respondents, with problem group in particular being a strong predictor of strategy. Demographic characteristics also significantly predicted the strategy used, although they were usually weaker predictors than problem group. Most notably, gender, age, disability status, education, employment status and main language predicted the strategies used in response to legal problems in most jurisdictions. The regression findings are further detailed below.

Table 9.5: Regression summaries — strategy in response to legal problems, each jurisdiction [click to enlarge]




Legal problem characteristics

Like past surveys, the LAW Survey found that the type of strategy adopted in response to a legal problem was significantly and often strongly related to the problem’s characteristics. First, the regressions showed that the type of legal problem strongly influenced strategy. In fact, in all jurisdictions, problem group was an important predictor of both taking action and seeking advice when action was taken. In addition, with only a few exceptions, problem group was the strongest predictor in these regressions across jurisdictions.(60) With the exception of the employment, health and rights problem groups, all other problem groups were significantly related to strategy in most jurisdictions (see Table 9.5).(61) Specifically, in most jurisdictions, compared to all problems on average:
    • accidents and crime problems resulted in lower odds of taking action and higher odds of seeking advice when action was taken
    • consumer and credit/debt problems resulted in lower odds of seeking advice when action was taken
    • family problems resulted in higher odds of taking action and of seeking advice when action was taken
    • government and housing problems resulted in lower odds of seeking advice when action was taken
    • money problems, which included business/investment and wills/estates problems, resulted in higher odds of taking action
    • personal injury problems resulted in higher odds of seeking advice when action was taken.(62)
A number of these findings are consistent with earlier surveys. For example, family breakdown, wills, estates, advance directives and personal injury problems have often produced high rates of taking action, seeking advice and using lawyers (ABA 1994; Cass & Sackville 1975; Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Dale 2005, 2007; Dignan 2006; Fishwick 1992; Genn 1999; LASNSC 2005; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010; Rush 1999; Schulman 2003, 2007; Task Force 2003).(63) Consumer problems have tended to result in lower rates of seeking advice and either higher rates of inaction or higher rates of handling the problem alone (Cass & Sackville 1975; Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010).(64) It is worth noting that the links between strategy and problem type may in part reflect the severity and adverse impacts of different types of problems.(65) For example, the present study showed that respondents tended to take action and seek advice for family problems,(66) and that family problems tended to be severe and have a greater number of adverse impacts. In contrast, respondents tended to handle consumer problems without advice,(67) and consumer problems tended to be less severe and have fewer adverse impacts.

Second, the regressions also revealed that the recency of legal problems significantly predicted the strategies used. However, consistently across jurisdictions, problem recency was a considerably weaker predictor than problem group. Problems that had persisted for at least seven months resulted in higher odds of taking action in most jurisdictions(68) and in higher odds of seeking advice when action was taken in all jurisdictions (see Table 9.5). These findings may reflect the possibility that more persistent problems tend to be more severe. However, these findings may also reflect the simple fact that it takes time to successfully determine and carry out appropriate actions and to successfully locate and consult with appropriate advisers.

Third, other types of statistical analyses showed that the severity of the legal problem guided strategy. According to chi-square analyses in each jurisdiction, respondents were significantly more likely to take action and more likely to seek advice when they took action for substantial legal problems than for minor legal problems.(69) These findings for problem severity support previous findings and indicate that people sensibly seek expert advice when legal problems are more important, complex or difficult to solve (Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Genn 1999; Pleasence et al. 2004c, 2010). Somers’ d analyses showed that, in each jurisdiction, substantial legal problems were also significantly more likely to result in a greater number of actions, such as using websites or self-help guides, consulting relatives or friends, communicating with the other side, and court, tribunal or formal dispute resolution processes.(70)

The finding that the choice of strategy in response to a legal problem is guided by the characteristics of the problem is heartening. This finding suggests that the response to legal problems is not completely haphazard but is measured against the nature, perceived importance and likely impact of legal problems.

Age and gender

Past studies have usually reported a relationship between the strategies used in response to legal problems and age. Middle-aged or somewhat older people often have the highest rates of taking action or seeking advice. In contrast, the youngest, and sometimes also the oldest, age groups tend to have low rates (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Fishwick 1992; Genn 1999; Ignite Research 2006; Pleasence 2006; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004). The present results support past findings (see Table 9.5). In each jurisdiction, age was a significant, strong predictor in at least one of the two regressions on strategy. Although age was usually a weaker predictor than problem group, age was often the strongest of the demographic predictors.(71) In most jurisdictions, the two youngest and the oldest age groups tended to have the lowest percentages for taking action, while the middle age groups tended to have the highest. These percentages resulted in significantly higher odds of taking action for some of the middle age groups compared to the oldest group in four jurisdictions.(72) In addition, when they took action, the youngest age groups were significantly less likely to seek advice and most likely to handle problems without advice in all jurisdictions apart from NSW and the Northern Territory.(73)

The LAW Survey also found significant relationships between strategy and gender in most jurisdictions, although gender was generally not one of the strongest predictors. Compared to males, females were significantly more likely to take action in most jurisdictions and to seek advice when they took action in a few jurisdictions (see Table 9.5). In Australia as a whole, females were more likely than males to both take action and seek advice when they took action. Although not all past studies have found a relationship between strategy and gender (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Genn & Paterson 2001; Miller & Srivastava 2002; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004), those that have, like the present survey, reported higher rates of taking action or seeking advice for females (Genn 1999; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2004c).

Disadvantaged groups

Past studies have reported that certain disadvantaged groups tend to ignore their legal problems. Most consistently, the strategy used in response to legal problems has been associated with education and ethnicity. Less educated people and ethnic minorities more often fail to take action or seek advice (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Genn 1999; LSNJ 2009; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2004c; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004). Similarly, in most jurisdictions, the LAW Survey found that low levels of education and non-English main language were the indicators of disadvantage that tended to be linked with lower levels of taking action and lower levels of seeking advice when action was taken.

Education was significantly related to strategy in all jurisdictions apart from Tasmania (see Table 9.5). People with low levels of education had lower odds of taking action in most jurisdictions and lower odds of seeking advice when they took action in a few jurisdictions (see Table 9.5). In Australia as a whole, people with low levels of education had lower odds of taking action and of seeking advice when they took action. Although it is unclear why Tasmania was the only jurisdiction where education was not significantly related to strategy, it is notable that Tasmania is the jurisdiction with the highest proportion of people who did not finish school (ABS 2009b).

Main language significantly predicted strategy in all jurisdictions apart from Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory (see Table 9.5). When significant, it was usually one of the strongest predictors of strategy after problem group. In Australia as a whole, people with a non-English main language had lower odds of taking action and of seeking advice when they took action. Although main language was the second strongest predictor of taking action in Australia as a whole, it was only the fourth strongest predictor of seeking advice when action was taken. Small numbers in the non-English main language group may have militated against finding significant relationships between main language and strategy in Tasmania and Queensland. As noted earlier, according to both the survey and census data (ABS 2007a), Tasmania has the smallest proportion of people from a non-English-speaking background, and Queensland has the second smallest proportion.(74) In addition, although the Northern Territory did not have a particularly low proportion of survey respondents with a non-English main language (5%), the territory is different from other jurisdictions in that it is the only jurisdiction where Indigenous people comprise a large proportion of the non-English-speaking population (ABS 2007a).(75)

As already discussed, people with low levels of education and people with a non-English main language were also the only two disadvantaged groups that tended to report low rather than high prevalence of legal problems.

The LAW Survey results for employment status were in a similar direction to those for education and main language but were less consistent across jurisdictions. Unemployed people had significantly lower odds of taking action in Australia as a whole and significantly lower odds of seeking advice when they took action in NSW, Western Australia, Tasmania, the ACT and Australia as a whole (see Table 9.5).

In contrast, people with a disability tended to have higher rather than lower odds of taking action. They also tended to have higher odds of seeking advice when they took action. One or both of these effects was significant in all jurisdictions apart from South Australia (see Table 9.5). Some past surveys have similarly found higher rates of seeking advice for people with a disability and some other disadvantaged groups (Balmer et al. 2010; Currie 2007b).

The other indicators of disadvantage were less reliably related to strategy (see Table 9.5). Single parents had significantly higher odds of seeking advice when they took action in Victoria, the ACT and Australia as a whole, but family status was not significantly related to strategy in the other jurisdictions. Indigenous respondents had significantly lower odds of taking action in the Northern Territory, but Indigenous status was not significantly related to strategy in the other jurisdictions. The Northern Territory relationship between Indigenous status and strategy is consistent with the findings of the NSWNLS (Coumarelos et al. 2006).(76) It is also consistent with the territory having the most disadvantaged Indigenous population in Australia (SCRGSP 2007), although the small numbers of Indigenous respondents in other states/territories may have contributed to the failure to achieve significance in these jurisdictions.(77) Housing type and remoteness of residential area were not significantly related to strategy in all jurisdictions.

Like the CSJS (Pleasence 2006), the LAW Survey found that the type of strategy adopted by people in response to a new legal problem is influenced by the strategies they have used in the past. In all jurisdictions, people who took no action in response to one legal problem were significantly more likely to do nothing in response to new legal problems. In addition, in most jurisdictions, when respondents took action, they were significantly more likely to seek advice rather than handle legal problems alone if they had sought advice previously.(78)

54. The percentages for court or tribunal proceedings included cases where court or tribunal proceedings had not yet taken place but were likely to take place. Similarly, the percentages for formal dispute resolution included cases where the respondent was likely to attend such sessions in relation to the problem.

55. x2=24.31, F7,71 839=2.88, p=0.005. See Appendix Figure A9.6 for details.

56. x2=18.71, F7,63 025=2.24, p=0.028. See Appendix Figure A9.6 for details. The percentages are based on all problems, whereas the chi-square is based only on problems where action was taken (i.e. sought advice or handled without advice).

57. The demographic characteristics and indicators of disadvantage that predict responses to legal problems are discussed further in this chapter’s ‘Predicting strategy in response to legal problems’ section.

58. The Australian logistic regression models on strategy (one model on taking action and a second model on seeking advice; see Table 5.7 in the Australian LAW Survey report) were re-run with the addition of state/territory as a potential predictor variable or ‘fixed effect’. See Appendix Tables A2.8 and A2.9 (models 5b and 6b) for further details and Appendix Tables A9.3 and A9.4 for the full results. The chi-square tests examined taking action and seeking advice given states’/territories’ actual demographic and problem profiles. In contrast, the regressions estimated the odds of taking action and seeking advice if states/territories had identical profiles in terms of the demographic and problem characteristics examined in the models. The regressions showed that there were significant differences in the odds of taking action and seeking advice between states/territories after their profiles had been taken into account, so it is unlikely that the differences in strategy are due solely to differences in these profiles. Compared to average, Victorian and Queensland respondents had higher odds of taking action, while Northern Territory respondents had lower odds of taking action. In addition, when they took action, South Australian respondents had higher odds of seeking advice.

59. The model on taking action and the model on seeking advice in each jurisdiction were comparable to the Australian models shown in Table 5.7. Further details are provided in Appendix Tables A2.8 and A2.9 (models 5a and 6a), while the full results are provided in the LAW Survey report for the relevant jurisdiction.

60. The only exceptions were that problem group was the second strongest predictor of taking action in South Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT.

61. Employment problems resulted in higher odds of taking action and of seeking advice when action was taken in a few jurisdictions. Health and rights problems resulted in lower odds of taking action and higher odds of seeking advice when action was taken in a few jurisdictions.

62. All of the regression findings in the above list were significant in Australia as a whole.

63. Coumarelos et al. (2006) found higher rates of seeking help for family law problems when compared to civil law and criminal law problems using a chi-square test. However, family problems did not result in significantly higher odds of seeking help in the regression on action taken.

64. Past studies have also often reported high rates of inaction for problems related to discrimination, human rights and unfair police action (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007a; Fishwick 1992; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010). The LAW Survey found high odds of inaction for rights problems in three jurisdictions.

65. See Table 3.3 in each LAW Survey report for descriptive statistics on the prevalence of substantial problems by problem group, and see Table 4.7 in each LAW Survey report for chi-square results on the number of adverse consequences of legal problems by problem group.

66. As noted above, in Australia as a whole, family problems resulted in significantly higher odds of taking action and of seeking advice when action was taken.

67. In all jurisdictions, when action was taken for consumer problems, they resulted in significantly lower odds of seeking advice.

68. The result for taking action was significant in all jurisdictions except Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the ACT.

69. See Figure 5.5 in the LAW Survey report for each jurisdiction for the full results.

70. See Table 5.1 in the LAW Survey report for each jurisdiction for the full results.

71. Age was the strongest demographic predictor of seeking advice when action was taken in Australia as a whole.

72. The regressions compared the oldest age group to each other age group. At least some of the middle age groups (i.e. 25–34, 35–44, 45–54 and 55–64 year olds) had significantly higher odds of taking action compared to the oldest age group in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, the ACT and Australia as a whole. The regressions did not directly compare the two youngest age groups (i.e. 15–17 and 18–24 year olds) to the middle age groups. Nonetheless, like the oldest age group, the two youngest age groups also had low percentages of taking action in most jurisdictions. In fact, 15–17 year olds had the lowest percentages of taking action in all jurisdictions except the ACT. However, there were a few jurisdictions where one of the two youngest age groups had significantly higher odds of taking action compared to the oldest age group: 15–17 year olds in the ACT had significantly higher odds of taking action, and 18–24 year olds in Tasmania and Australia as a whole had significantly higher odds of taking action.

73. Compared to the oldest age group, 15–17 year olds or 18–24 year olds or both had significantly lower odds of seeking advice when they took action in all jurisdictions apart from NSW and the Northern Territory. In addition, 25–34 year olds had significantly lower odds of seeking advice when they took action compared to the oldest age group in Tasmania and Australia as a whole, but this comparison was not significant in the other jurisdictions. In most jurisdictions, when action was taken, the odds of seeking advice for 35–64 year olds were similar to those for the oldest age group with two exceptions: in NSW, 45–64 year olds had significantly higher odds of seeking advice, while in South Australia, 55–64 year olds had significantly higher odds of handling problems without advice.
74. According to weighted data, the percentage of LAW Survey respondents with a non-English main language was two per cent in Tasmania, three per cent in Queensland and 4–9 per cent in the other states/territories. Similarly, according to the census (ABS 2007a), the proportion of the population aged 15 years or over who speak a non-English language at home and do not speak English very well is two per cent in Tasmania, four per cent in Queensland and 5–11 per cent in the other states/territories.

75. Based on the census, people who speak a non-English language include 44 per cent whose main language is an Indigenous language in the Northern Territory compared to less than three per cent in the other states/territories (ABS 2007a).

76. Coumarelos et al. (2006) found that the type of legal problem, age, Indigenous status and education were predictors of whether action was taken, but that gender, country of birth, disability status and personal income were not.

77. These possibilities are discussed further in Chapter 10, ‘Tailoring services for specific demographic groups: Indigenous background’ section.

78. This regression finding was not significant in Victoria, the Northern Territory and Australia as a whole.

  


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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