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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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Adverse consequences of legal problems

Prevalence of legal problems with a substantial impact

Legal problems often had considerable impacts on everyday life, including adverse consequences on health, financial and social circumstances. About half the legal problems in all jurisdictions (48–57%) were rated as being ‘substantial’ — that is, as having a ‘severe’ or ‘moderate’ impact on everyday life. In Australia as a whole, the percentage was 55. The present findings are consistent with past results. CSJS respondents in the UK reported spending all or most of their time worrying about almost 40 per cent of problems (Pleasence 2006). Canadian respondents reported that almost 60 per cent of problems made daily life somewhat to extremely difficult (Currie 2007b). In Northern Ireland, 40 per cent of problems were reported as having a severe impact (Dignan 2006).

The number of Australian LAW Survey respondents with a substantial legal problem is expressed above as a percentage of the respondents with legal problems. When this number is re-expressed as a percentage of all respondents (also including those without legal problems), 27 per cent of all Australian respondents experienced a legal problem of substantial impact. This percentage translates to approximately 4 664 000 people aged 15 years or over in the Australian population experiencing a substantial legal problem within a one-year period. Similarly, about one-quarter of all respondents in each jurisdiction experienced a substantial legal problem.

Types of adverse consequences of legal problems

The LAW Survey examined whether legal problems caused the following types of adverse consequences: stress-related illness, physical ill health, relationship breakdown, moving home, and loss of income or financial strain. In Australia as a whole, 45 per cent of the legal problems examined in depth caused at least one of these adverse consequences.(44) Similar percentages (40–47%) were obtained in each jurisdiction and in overseas surveys (38–52%; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010).(45)

Across jurisdictions, the most common types of adverse consequences reported by LAW Survey respondents were income loss or financial strain (24–30%), followed by stress-related illness (16–22%) and physical ill health (16–20%). Relationship breakdown (7–12%) and moving home (4–7%) were also evident in each jurisdiction. International research has similarly reported that stress-related illness (22–29%), loss of income (13–26%) and physical ill health (10–24%) tend to be more frequent than relationship breakdown (4–16%) and moving home (4–10%; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Ignite Research 2006; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010). However, while loss of income or financial strain was the most common impact for the LAW Survey, stress-related illness was the most common impact for the overseas surveys. This discrepancy may partly reflect measurement differences. Notably, the category of ‘loss of income or financial strain’ used by the LAW Survey was broader than the ‘loss of income’ category used by other surveys (Dignan 2006; Ignite Research 2006; Pleasence 2006). Higher endorsement of the broader category would be expected.

Adverse consequences of different types of legal problems

The LAW Survey confirms earlier findings that some types of legal problems are more severe(46) and have more adverse consequences.(47) Family problems were typically seen as the most severe, with the greatest number of adverse impacts. They comprised the highest proportion of substantial problems (69–80%) in most jurisdictions.(48) They also had the highest mean number of adverse consequences (1.5–2.2) in all jurisdictions.(49) Employment problems and legal problems from the health problem group, which included clinical negligence and mental health problems, also tended to have considerable impacts. While the personal injury problem group had a relatively high mean number of adverse consequences, it comprised a somewhat lower proportion of substantial problems. The CSJS in the UK similarly found that relationship breakdown, domestic violence, employment, clinical negligence, mental health and personal injury problems were particularly likely to result in at least one adverse consequence (Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2007b).

Like other surveys, the LAW Survey found that consumer problems tended to be less severe, with fewer adverse impacts (Currie 2007b; Dignan 2007; Ignite Research 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010). Across jurisdictions, only around two-fifths of the respondents with a consumer problem reported a substantial problem of this type, whereas, as already noted, more than two-thirds of those with a family problem reported a substantial family problem. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of consumer problems meant that substantial consumer problems were still quite prevalent. Across jurisdictions, roughly 20 per cent of all respondents reported a consumer problem, and 7–10 per cent reported a substantial consumer problem, whereas 4–6 per cent reported a family problem and 3–5 per cent reported a substantial family problem. Similarly, the high volume of crime problems across jurisdictions meant that the prevalence of substantial crime problems was relatively high even though the majority of crime problems were minor.(50)

44. Up to three ‘most serious’ problems for each respondent were selected for in-depth examination (see Chapter 2, ‘Method: Survey instrument’ section). For convenience, these problems that were examined in depth are referred to as ‘all problems’ throughout the remainder of the report.

45. The NSWLNS did not measure the adverse consequences of legal issues (Coumarelos et al. 2006).

46. See Table 3.3 in each LAW Survey report for descriptive statistics on the prevalence of substantial problems by problem group.

47. 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.

48. In South Australia and the ACT, family problems comprised the second highest proportion of substantial problems.

49. In the Northern Territory, family problems and personal injury problems had the equal highest mean number of adverse consequences.

50. Many of the overseas surveys did not capture crime problems. The LAW Survey’s accidents problem group included relatively minor problems, as, by definition, it comprised only injury-free motor vehicle accidents. Motor vehicle accidents resulting in injury were categorised within the personal injury problem group.


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