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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

10. A holistic approach to justice

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Self-help legal strategies

The present finding that many people who handled their legal problems themselves achieved favourable outcomes suggests that promoting self-help legal strategies may be effective for some sections of the community. Self-help legal strategies not only include accessing legal information resources and websites, but also include strategies such as directly negotiating with the other side, communicating or lodging complaints with relevant authorities, and do-it-yourself kits for issues like wills, probate and divorce. There has been a trend in recent years towards legal consumers playing a larger part in their own legal service delivery and towards the ‘unbundling’ of legal services as a means to facilitating self-help (Giddings & Robertson 2003b). Unbundling involves breaking legal service delivery into discrete components so that clients can use self-help strategies for easy tasks but still obtain legal assistance for more difficult tasks (ABA SCDLS 2002; Balmer et al. 2010; Giddings & Robertson 2003b; MacDermott 2003; Shirvington 2003).

Just as legal information and education have been argued to be of limited utility for some people, it has similarly been proposed that self-help legal strategies more broadly cannot be quality substitutes for legal advice and assistance in all situations. The utility of self-help depends on both the nature of the legal tasks and the legal capability of the individuals (see ABA SCDLS 2002; Balmer et al. 2010; Giddings & Robertson 2003b; Lawler et al. 2009; MacDermott 2003; Shirvington 2003). In terms of tasks, non-routine legal work involving the exercise of substantial discretions appears to be less suited to self-help (Barendrecht 2011; Giddings & Robertson 2003b; Lawler et al. 2009). Further, self-help legal strategies will sometimes be incapable of providing complete legal solutions and may be more effective as components of a suite of services (see Giddings & Robertson 2001, 2003a; Hunter et al. 2009; Lawler et al. 2009).

In terms of people, Balmer et al. (2010) demonstrated that self-help legal strategies are more viable for people with high levels of legal knowledge, and disadvantaged people generally did not fall into this group. Unlike educated, affluent people, disadvantaged people tended to have poor legal knowledge and to achieve poor outcomes when they handled legal problems alone. Importantly, Balmer et al. also found that obtaining expert advice for legal problems negated the effect of disadvantaged people having poor legal knowledge and still resulted in good outcomes. They concluded that public legal education initiatives need to be segmented according to the particular needs of different demographic groups. They argued that initiatives promoting self-help might be best targeted at the demographic groups that have high legal knowledge, such as more educated, affluent people. In contrast, initiatives that signpost relevant legal advice services may be more beneficial for disadvantaged groups that have poor legal knowledge and capability.


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