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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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Background to present survey

It is now widely accepted that legal needs are ubiquitous in contemporary society, cutting across many aspects of everyday life and having broad implications for physical, emotional and social well-being (Coumarelos, Wei & Zhou 2006; Currie 2007b; Genn 1999; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence, Buck, Balmer, O’Grady, Genn & Smith 2004c). The pervasive nature of legal needs arises to a large extent because the law permeates so many aspects of public, civil and private life. Many of the problems people commonly experience are nested in legal rights and obligations. These problems span basic areas of modern-day life, such as education, employment, money, debt, injury, health, housing and family relationships.

The interplay between the law and everyday life underlines the fundamental role of access to justice in community well-being. Considerable research effort in recent years has examined the extent to which people are able to access justice to resolve their legal needs. In particular, many large-scale legal needs surveys of the population have been conducted. Such surveys have examined the prevalence of different types of legal problems, the actions people take to resolve these problems and the outcomes they achieve. By building a picture of the nature of legal problems and the pathways to their resolution, these surveys have aimed to inform, and ultimately enhance, the provision of legal services and access to justice.

Although empirical research on legal needs dates back to the 1930s in the United States (US), it gained considerable momentum in the 1990s, when ground-breaking legal needs surveys were conducted in the US by the American Bar Association (ABA 1994; Consortium on Legal Services and the Public (Consortium) 1994) and in the United Kingdom (UK) by Genn (Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001). Following these studies, a number of large-scale surveys measuring a broad range of civil legal problems have been conducted around the world. These surveys have amassed a considerable body of evidence that paints a broadly consistent picture — namely:

  • Legal problems are widespread, with some people experiencing multiple, severe legal problems.
  • The health, social and economic consequences of legal problems can be substantial.
  • Many people make no attempt to resolve their legal problems.
  • Most people resolve their legal problems outside the formal justice system.
  • Many people experience barriers in trying to resolve their legal problems (e.g. Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001; Gramatikov 2008; Ignite Research 2006; Murayama 2007; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence, Balmer, Patel & Denvir 2010; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004).

These surveys have also provided compelling evidence that socioeconomically disadvantaged groups are particularly vulnerable to legal problems and less able to resolve the problems they face. Such disadvantaged groups include people with a disability, single parents, people who are unemployed, people who have low incomes or receive welfare benefits, and people living in public housing (e.g. Buck, Balmer & Pleasence 2005; Buck, Pleasence, Balmer, O’Grady & Genn 2004; Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001; Gramatikov 2008; O’Grady, Pleasence, Balmer, Buck & Genn 2004; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence & Balmer 2007, 2009; Pleasence, Balmer, Buck, O’Grady & Genn 2004a; Pleasence et al. 2010; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004).

Legal needs surveys in Australia date back to 1975 (Cass & Sackville 1975; Fishwick 1992; Rush Social Research Agency (Rush) 1999; Rush Social Research & John Walker Consulting Services 1996). However, the first large-scale Australian survey of a wide range of legal problems was conducted in New South Wales (NSW) and published in 2006 by Coumarelos et al. of the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW (LJF). This survey was reported in Justice made to measure: NSW Legal Needs Survey in disadvantaged areas. Consistent with overseas research, it found a high incidence of legal problems, a substantial rate of inaction in response to legal problems and a low use of legal advisers. In addition, socioeconomic disadvantage appeared to largely underlie the experience and handling of legal problems. Most notably, people with a disability had increased rates of a wide range of legal problems and decreased resolution rates.

The Justice made to measure report on the NSW Legal Needs Survey (NSWLNS) was enthusiastically received by the legal sector. Subsequently, the Legal Aid(1) commissions across Australia requested that the LJF undertake a comparable national survey. The Legal Australia-Wide Survey (LAW Survey) was thus conducted. The LAW Survey provides the first comprehensive quantitative assessment across Australia of a broad range of legal needs on a representative sample of the general population. Like its predecessors, it examines the nature of legal problems, the pathways to their resolution and the demographic groups that struggle with the weight of their legal problems. It aims to provide valuable empirical evidence for informing legal service provision and access to justice across Australia.

The LAW Survey had the largest sample of the comprehensive legal needs surveys undertaken anywhere in the world. It involved 20 716 respondents across Australia, with over 2000 respondents in each state/territory.(2) Thus, it allows for reliable analysis and policy implications at both the state/territory and the national levels. The present report series includes a report on each of the eight states/territories and a further report on Australia as a whole. This series details the first major findings of the LAW Survey, presenting a broad, high-level overview of legal need and legal resolution within each jurisdiction. While the nine reports complement one another and include jurisdictional comparisons, each report can nonetheless stand alone. For ease of use, each report contains the literature review and study method.

Beyond the current report series, the unprecedented size of the LAW Survey’s national data set provides the potential for additional, pioneering analyses in the area of legal need. In particular, the national sample will enable more fine-grained, in-depth analysis than tends to be possible with smaller surveys. For example, subsequent analyses should be able to drill down to some minority demographic groups and rare legal problems that are often captured by surveys in insufficient numbers for meaningful investigation.

The following sections highlight the main findings from the recent legal needs surveys conducted worldwide. First, however, a brief discussion is provided of two concepts that underpin these surveys — legal need and socioeconomic disadvantage. Some of the methodological differences between legal needs surveys are also outlined, because such differences impact on the comparability of these studies.

1. For convenience, the capitalised term ‘Legal Aid’ is used throughout this report to refer to the Legal Aid commissions across Australia, namely, Legal Aid NSW, Victoria Legal Aid, Legal Aid Queensland, Legal Services Commission of South Australia, Legal Aid Western Australia, Legal Aid Commission of Tasmania, Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission and Legal Aid ACT. When uncapitalised, ‘legal aid’ refers to legal aid services generically, including legal aid services in other countries.

2. The states/territories of Australia are NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).


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