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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

1. Review of legal needs surveys



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Vulnerability to legal problems


Legal needs surveys have repeatedly shown that some individuals are far more vulnerable to experiencing legal problems than others (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2008). Vulnerability to legal problems has consistently been linked to various demographic characteristics of respondents, including characteristics related to socioeconomic disadvantage.

Pleasence (2006) argued that demographic factors drive vulnerability to legal problems in a number of ways. First, age drives a ‘stages of life’ effect, whereby different types of problems tend to be experienced at different ages or life stages. Second, various demographic attributes are directly related to the defining circumstances necessary to experience certain problems. For example, parents have far greater opportunity than others to be affected by problems related to children. Third, some people have demographic characteristics that serve to increase their vulnerability to a wide range of legal problems above and beyond the necessary defining circumstances. In particular, people who experience multiple types of socioeconomic disadvantage, such as lone parents and people with a disability, appear to be especially vulnerable (Dignan 2006; Pleasence 2006).(14)

Despite the heightened vulnerability of disadvantaged groups, the evidence indicates that legal problems are not the exclusive domain of the disadvantaged. More affluent groups can also sometimes experience multiple, severe legal problems.

Below is a summary of the demographic variation in the experience of legal problems, including variation according to disadvantage. There can be considerable overlap between different indicators of disadvantage, with some people being considered disadvantaged according to multiple indicators. As a result, it can be difficult to separate out the effects of different indicators of disadvantage on vulnerability.(15) Regression analyses have the advantage that they can isolate the effects of individual demographic factors. They can determine which demographic factors are significant independent predictors of legal problem prevalence once the relationships between these demographic factors have been considered.(16) Regression analyses have been conducted in Australia (Coumarelos et al. 2006), Canada (Currie 2007b), China (Michelson 2007a), the Netherlands (van Velthoven & Klein Haarhuis 2010; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004), New Jersey in the US (LSNJ 2009; Miller & Srivastava 2002), Northern Ireland (Dignan 2006) and the UK (Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001; Pleasence 2006). Given their greater utility, findings based on regression analyses are noted in the summary below.

Vulnerability and age

Invariably, regressions and other analyses have revealed that age is significantly related to the overall prevalence of legal problems and to the prevalence of particular types of legal problems. It has been argued that people’s life circumstances tend to change as they age and progress through different life stages, and that, as a result, their exposure to the defining circumstances necessary to experience particular types of problems also changes (e.g. Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Pleasence 2006; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004). Economic, family and social circumstances all tend to change with age. Typically, younger or middle-aged people have the highest overall prevalence rates, and older people have the lowest (Buck et al. 2005; Coumarelos et al. 2006; CSRA 2003; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; GKA 2006, 2008; LASNSC 2005; LSNJ 2009; Maxwell et al. 1999; Miller & Srivastava 2002; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010; TALS 2004; van Velthoven & Klein Haarhuis 2010; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004).

The different coverage of legal problems across studies means that it is difficult to make precise comparisons about the types of legal problems that peak at different ages. Nonetheless, some commonalities across studies can be discerned. First, frequent problems in the younger age groups spanning teens to early 20s include problems related to criminal activity, such as general crime, unfair treatment by police and police action; and housing problems, such as problems associated with rented housing (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Maxwell et al. 1999; Pleasence 2006). These findings have been argued to reflect younger people’s lower levels of economic independence, lower standards of housing (e.g. higher rates of rented housing) and higher criminal offence and victimisation rates (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Pleasence 2006). A few studies have also found that accidents and personal injury problems are common in the younger age groups and may reflect high rates of risk-taking behaviour (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006).

Second, in the late 20s and early 30s, high rates of legal problems related to credit/debt and money have usually been reported. These findings have been argued to echo increasing personal expenditure and use of debt as people become more economically independent and commence acquiring major assets, such as motor vehicles and houses (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Pleasence 2006).

Third, family-related problems, such as divorce, relationship breakdown, problems ancillary to relationship breakdown and child-related problems, tend to be frequent in the late 30s to early 40s (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Dignan 2006; Pleasence 2006). Again, this finding appears to reflect changing life circumstances whereby, by this age, many people have chosen long-term partners and have dependent children.

Finally, most types of legal problems tend to decline after middle age (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Dignan 2006; Pleasence 2006). However, a few studies have found that wills, estates and power of attorney issues tend to be common in the older age groups (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Maxwell et al. 1999).

Vulnerability and gender

Regression analyses have not typically revealed a link between gender and overall prevalence of legal problems (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Dignan 2006; LSNJ 2009; Miller & Srivastava 2002; Pleasence 2006; van Velthoven & Klein Haarhuis 2010; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004). Occasionally, however, regression analyses have produced gender differences on some types of legal problems. For example, the NSWLNS found higher rates of accident/injury problems for males (Coumarelos et al. 2006). The CSJS showed higher rates of domestic violence and neighbour problems for females, and higher rates of employment problems, money/debt problems and unfair treatment by police for males (Pleasence 2006). Currie (2007b) found higher rates of family and relationship problems for females, and higher rates of problems related to debt, police action and threat of legal action for males.

Vulnerability and disadvantage

Recent legal needs surveys have amassed a substantial body of evidence indicating that socioeconomically disadvantaged groups have enhanced vulnerability to a large range of legal problems. Both trends across studies and the results of regression analyses within individual studies support this notion.

An emerging trend across legal needs surveys is that prevalence rates tend to be higher in dis­advantaged rather than in general population samples (Coumarelos et al. 2006). Prevalence rates in general population samples have ranged between approximately 20 and 50 per cent, with the majority being below 40 per cent (Dignan 2006; Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001; Gramatikov 2008; HKDOJ 2008; Ignite Research 2006; Maxwell et al. 1999; Murayama 2007; Pleasence 2006). In contrast, prevalence rates considerably above 40 per cent have been more common in disadvantaged samples. In the US, 13 surveys focusing on low-income samples had prevalence rates between 33 and 87 per cent, with 11 of these rates being above 40 per cent, and six being above 60 per cent (AAJC 2009; ABA 1994; CSRA 2003; Dale 2009; GKA 2006, 2008; LASNSC 2005; LSNJ 2009; Miller & Srivastava 2002; Schulman 2003, 2007; TALS 2004; Task Force 2003). Two Australian surveys in disadvantaged areas also reported high prevalence rates of 67–69 per cent (Cass & Sackville 1975; Coumarelos et al. 2006).

This trend across studies provides suggestive but not conclusive proof that disadvantage increases vulnerability to legal problems. Other methodological differences between disadvantaged and general population surveys may also have contributed to this trend. For example, the higher prevalence of legal problems in the US surveys may be due to their capture of household problems, whereas most of the general population surveys captured problems experienced by individuals. Note, however, that the two Australian disadvantaged sample surveys assessed legal problems faced by individuals. Furthermore, the higher prevalence in disadvantaged samples cannot be attributed to the use of longer reference periods. Typically, the disadvantaged population surveys have used one-year periods, whereas the general population surveys have used periods of 3–5 years.(17)

One way to isolate the effects of disadvantaged versus general population samples is to employ otherwise identical methodology. Virtually identical methodology has been used in a few instances. First, in Canada, a slightly higher prevalence of legal problems was obtained when a low- to moderate-income sample was surveyed (48%) than when a general population sample was surveyed (45%; Currie 2005, 2007b). Using the CSJS in the UK, a dramatically higher prevalence rate (84%) was obtained for temporary accommodation residents than for the general population (33–36%; Pleasence 2006). In addition, although examining only disadvantaged samples, some of the US studies subdivided their samples based on income and found that the group on the lowest incomes had higher prevalence rates or a greater number of legal problems (CEALS 2001; Dale 2005, 2009; LSNJ 2009; Schulman 2003, 2007; Task Force 2003).(18)

The most compelling evidence of a link between socioeconomic disadvantage and vulnerability to legal problems comes from studies using regression analyses. As detailed below, these studies have typically found increased vulnerability for people with a disability, single parents, people living in impoverished housing, people on low incomes or welfare benefits, and unemployed people.

Disability status

Legal needs surveys have repeatedly found that people with a disability are not only more likely to experience legal problems but are, in fact, more vulnerable to a wide range of legal problems. For example, in Australia, regression analyses by Coumarelos et al. (2006) on the NSWLNS revealed that disability stood out as the indicator of disadvantage most consistently linked with increased vulnerability. Disability was linked to high overall prevalence rates and high rates of most problem types — namely, accident/injury, consumer, credit/debt, education, employment, family, general crime, government and housing problems.

Regression results on the CSJS in the UK have also shown that disability is related to increased rates of most legal problem types — namely, clinical negligence, consumer, discrimination, domestic violence, employment, mental health, money/debt, neighbour, owned housing, personal injury, relationship breakdown, rented housing, unfair treatment by police and welfare benefits (Buck et al. 2005; Pleasence 2006). Regression analyses in Canada have also found disability to be linked to increased rates of most problem types (Currie 2007a).

In Northern Ireland, other analyses have similarly revealed a link between disability and most types of legal problems (Dignan 2006). Descriptive results from some US surveys also showed higher prevalence for low-income respondents with a disability than for other low-income respondents (AAJC 2009; Dale 2000, 2005, 2007; LASNSC 2005; Task Force 2003).

The strong propensity for people with a disability to experience legal problems is consistent with the contention that these people constitute the most socially excluded of all disadvantaged groups and have restricted life opportunities in multiple life areas (Coumarelos & Wei 2009; Howard 1999; Pleasence 2006). For example, people with a disability are more likely to have low incomes, have low levels of educational attainment, be unemployed or experience disadvantage in the labour market, have poorer housing and be victims of crime (ABS 2004c; O’Grady et al. 2004; Pleasence 2006). They are also less likely to participate in various societal activities (ABS 2011e). In addition, a number of authors have argued that the link between disability and legal problems is likely to be bidirectional. Not only are people in this demographic group more likely to experience legal problems, but the wide range of legal problems they face may impact negatively on their lives and further entrench their social exclusion (Coumarelos et al. 2006; O’Grady et al. 2004; Pleasence 2006). The combined health and legal needs of people with a disability have led authors to propose that better coordination between legal and health services is likely to improve both health and justice outcomes for this demographic group (Balmer, Pleasence, Buck & Walker 2006; Coumarelos & Wei 2009; Pleasence et al. 2004c).

Family type

Regression analyses have found significant links between family type and the prevalence of a broad range of legal problems. Single-parent families appear to be particularly vulnerable to legal problems (e.g. Buck et al. 2004). However, the measure of family type has varied across studies, and only a few studies have examined single-parent families. Prevalence rates have variously been explored by marital status or the presence of dependent children.

Family types were categorised according to both marital/cohabiting status and the presence of children in the regression and other analyses conducted on CSJS data in the UK. Lone-parent families had the highest prevalence of legal problems, while childless families had the lowest. In addition, cohabitees had higher prevalence rates than married people, and the presence of children generally increased prevalence (Buck et al. 2004; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010). Furthermore, lone parents had increased rates of many problem types, including both problems typically affecting single people and problems typically affecting parents. They had high rates of problems regarding children, divorce and relationship breakdown, domestic violence, mental health, money/debt, neighbours and rented housing.

Similarly, regressions in Northern Ireland found that lone parents and divorced individuals had among the highest overall prevalence of legal problems. Additional analyses indicated that lone parents had elevated rates of a wide range of legal problems (Dignan 2006). In Canada, Currie’s (2007b) regression results showed that lone parents had increased prevalence in most problem categories, including consumer, debt, discrimination, employment, family law, housing, police action and threat of legal action. The most problem-free respondents based on marital and family status were those without children.

In the Netherlands, regression analyses on legal problem prevalence examined marital status but not the presence of children. Those who were divorced or cohabiting had more problems than those who were widowed (van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004).

In New Jersey, marital status was not examined, but regression analysis revealed higher prevalence of legal problems for households with children (Miller & Srivastava 2002). Using descriptive data, some other US studies found higher prevalence for single-parent households or households with children (AAJC 2009; CSRA 2003; GKA 2006, 2008; LSNJ 2009; Schulman 2003; TALS 2004).

Lone parents often experience multiple types of disadvantage, such as poverty, poor housing and disability (Buck et al. 2004). Pleasence (2006) argued that the changes in personal circumstances that result from family breakdown, such as changes in family, economic and housing circumstances, can leave lone parents particularly vulnerable to a range of further problems which constitute elements of social exclusion. Meeting the legal needs of lone parents has been identified as a priority, given their heightened vulnerability to multiple disadvantage and multiple legal problems (Buck et al. 2004; Moorhead, Sefton & Douglas 2004).

Income and welfare benefits

The relationship between economic circumstances and the experience of legal problems has proven to be complex and, at first glance, far from clear-cut. High overall prevalence rates have been linked to both low and high income. Variation across studies in the measurement of economic circumstances (e.g. personal income, household income and receipt of welfare benefits) and the capture of legal problems further obfuscates the issue. Nonetheless, an emerging trend is that poorer people experience different types of legal problems from wealthier people. Wealthier people tend to experience problems reflecting greater opportunity for economic activity, due to higher levels of disposable income and assets, whereas poorer people tend to experience problems consistent with socioeconomic disadvantage (Buck et al. 2005; Coumarelos et al. 2006; Dignan 2006; Pleasence 2006).

In the Netherlands, using regression analysis, van Velthoven and Klein Haarhuis (2010) reported that both people on low incomes and people on high incomes experienced more legal problems than those on average incomes. Similarly, regression and other analyses on the CSJS in the UK found high overall prevalence rates for both the group with the highest incomes and the group with the lowest incomes, and also for those on welfare benefits (Pleasence 2006; Pleasence et al. 2010). High-income earners were more likely to report legal problems with clinical negligence, consumer issues, investment services and owned housing. Pleasence (2006) argued that these findings reflect a greater opportunity for investments, substantial assets and purchases of consumer goods and services. In contrast, low-income earners and welfare recipients tended to report legal problems with children’s education, debt, homelessness, money management, unsatisfactory or rented housing, and welfare benefits. These types of legal problems are similar to those experienced by other disadvantaged groups, such as people with a disability and lone parents, and have been argued to reflect poorer housing options and less economic independence (Buck et al. 2005; Pleasence 2006).(19) As noted further below, certain clusters of legal problems appear to be associated with social exclusion.

In Australia, regressions revealed that the high-income group had high prevalence of legal events overall and of accident/injury, consumer, general crime, housing and wills/estates events (Coumarelos et al. 2006). These findings were again argued to reflect high-income earners’ greater levels of disposable income, assets and possessions. For example, the high rate of housing events largely reflected high rates of buying or selling a home. Similarly, the high rate of general crime events was consistent with owning valuables, because it was driven by being a victim of stolen or vandalised property.

In Canada and Northern Ireland, respondents on low incomes and welfare benefits were found to have high rates of a large number of legal problem types, and, again, many of these problem types appeared to reflect elements of socioeconomic disadvantage. In Canada, using regression analyses, Currie (2007b) found that low-income earners and welfare recipients had high prevalence of problems related to debt, discrimination, family issues, hospital treatment and release, housing, social services, and welfare and disability benefits. In Northern Ireland, using other analyses, Dignan (2006) reported that welfare recipients had high rates of problems related to discrimination, domestic violence, family and relationship matters, homelessness, mental health, neighbours, rented housing, treatment by police and welfare benefits. Welfare recipients also tended to have other ‘markers’ of disadvantage, such as lone parenthood or disability, and Dignan suggested that multiple sources of disadvantage can interact to increase vulnerability to legal problems.

A number of the US surveys of disadvantaged samples also noted differences in the types of legal problems experienced according to income, although these findings were not based on regressions. In particular, respondents on lower incomes more commonly reported problems related to employment, housing and welfare benefits (e.g. Dale 2009; GKA 2006, 2008; LSNJ 2009; Schulman 2003; TALS 2004).

Employment status

Employment status has usually been found to predict the prevalence of legal problems. However, similarly to income level, the direction of the relationship has varied, with higher overall rates of legal problems being linked sometimes to unemployment and sometimes to employment. Differences in the measurement of employment status across studies (e.g. long-term versus current unemployment) may, along with other methodological differences, contribute to the apparently inconsistent relationship with overall prevalence. Again, however, it appears that employed and unemployed individuals are likely to experience different types of problems.

Using regression, Dignan (2006) found that Northern Irish respondents who had never worked or had experienced long-standing unemployment reported lower overall rates of legal problems. Descriptive and regression results from a few US studies similarly indicated higher prevalence among employed people than among unemployed or retired people (GKA 2006; LSNJ 2009; Miller & Srivastava 2002; TALS 2004).

Conversely, Currie’s (2005, 2007b) regression results showed that Canadians who were unemployed at the time of interview had higher rates of several types of legal problems, such as consumer, debt, disability, employment, housing, relationship breakdown and other family problems, and threatened legal action. Pleasence’s (2006) regression analysis in the UK similarly indicated that unemployment increased the likelihood of experiencing some types of legal problems, such as problems related to crime victimisation, domestic violence, employment, money/debt, neighbours and rented housing. He noted that the problem types experienced by the unemployed are consistent with other research that has identified unemployment as an important driver of many aspects of social exclusion.

Housing

People’s housing circumstances often reflect their economic circumstances and, hence, their levels of economic disadvantage (Pleasence 2006). The few legal needs surveys that have examined housing have generally found that poorer housing is linked to greater vulnerability to legal problems. Furthermore, as housing becomes more impoverished, respondents are more likely to report problems that are indicative of social exclusion (e.g. problems related to debt and welfare benefits) and less likely to report problems that are indicative of economic activity (e.g. consumer problems). For example, as noted earlier, the CSJS demonstrated much higher overall rates of legal problems for temporary accommodation residents than for the general UK population (Buck et al. 2005; Pleasence 2006). The temporary accommodation respondents were also found to have higher rates of many problem types, including problems related to discrimination, employment, immigration, rented housing and welfare benefits. However, they had lower levels of consumer problems, reflecting their substantially lower incomes and consumer activity.

Regression and other analyses on the general CSJS sample have consistently shown that both dwelling type and tenure type have a strong relationship with the experience of legal problems (Pleasence 2006). In terms of dwelling type, people living in high-density housing, such as flats, were more likely to report legal problems. Regarding tenure type, people living in rented housing had the highest overall prevalence rates, followed by people paying off a mortgage, with home owners having the lowest rates (Pleasence et al. 2010). In addition, different problem types were associated with different housing circumstances. For example, mortgagees and home owners had high rates of consumer problems, residents of high-density or rented housing had high rates of problems concerning debt, neighbours and welfare benefits, and public renters also had high rates of homelessness during the reference period. Again, it appeared that wealthier respondents experienced problems related to greater economic activity, whereas poorer respondents experienced problems reflecting social exclusion.

Similarly, in Northern Ireland, Dignan’s (2006) regression results revealed that public and private renters had increased incidence of legal problems. In addition, both these demographic groups reported problems related to rented housing. However, while public renters also had high rates of neighbour problems, private renters had high rates of consumer and employment problems.

In New Jersey, using regression analyses, Miller and Srivastava (2002) found higher overall prevalence of legal problems for renters. Furthermore, descriptive data from some US surveys showed that people who are homeless or live in low-standard housing are more vulnerable to legal problems overall or to certain types of legal problems (CSRA 2003; Dale 2000, 2005, 2007; GKA 2006, 2008; LSNJ 2009).

Education

Legal needs surveys have typically found that people with high levels of education report high rates of legal problems overall or high rates of a number of legal problem types when compared to those with low levels of education. This finding has emerged from both regression analyses (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Pleasence 2006; van Velthoven & Klein Haarhuis 2010; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004) and other analyses (GKA 2006, 2008; LSNJ 2009; Maxwell et al. 1999). Interestingly, this finding is not in the expected direction, given that low education is an indicator of disadvantage, but other indicators of disadvantage are usually related to increased vulnerability to legal problems.

The simplest explanation is that the lower reporting rates by people with low education levels accurately reflect a lower actual incidence of legal problems. However, it has been proposed that the lower reporting rates may instead reflect underreporting of real incidence levels, which may be driven, for example, by a failure to recognise or admit to legal problems (Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b). This second explanation is more consistent with the broader findings that disadvantaged groups tend to have increased prevalence rates. It is also in keeping with the contention that individuals must have basic legal knowledge or legal ‘capability’ to be able to recognise and resolve legal problems (e.g. Genn & Paterson 2001). Recent CSJS analyses have shown that less educated people are less knowledgeable about legal rights and processes, and are more likely to ignore their problems (Balmer et al. 2010; Buck, Pleasence & Balmer 2008). Thus, it is possible that a lack of legal knowledge among these people may hinder their ability to identify legal problems and lead them to underreport the legal problems they experience. The concept of legal capability is discussed in more depth later.

Ethnicity

Given that ethnic minorities are often disadvantaged, many legal needs surveys have examined the link between ethnicity and legal problems. However, a clear pattern across studies has not emerged, with some studies finding higher prevalence rates for ethnic minorities and some finding lower rates. The inconsistent relationship should not be too surprising, given the methodological differences between studies. First, and perhaps most obviously, studies in different countries have necessarily examined different ethnic groups, often characterised by distinct demographics, cultural backgrounds, attitudes, life experiences, life opportunities and levels of disadvantage. Second, ethnic groups have been identified by a variety of disparate measures, including country of birth, Indigenous status, main language and self-identification. Third, in some samples, the number of respondents in various ethnic groups may have been too small to produce reliable results. Fourth, the lower reporting rates by ethnic minorities in some studies may reflect a failure to recognise legal problems, due to a lack of legal knowledge, and may not accurately reflect prevalence.

According to regression analysis, although ethnicity was not related to the overall prevalence of legal problems in the UK, discrimination and immigration problems were more prevalent for Black and minority ethnic respondents than for White respondents (Pleasence 2006).

In Canada, Currie’s (2007b) regression results showed that prevalence was related to a number of measures of ethnicity. Self-identified Aboriginal respondents had higher rates than non-Aboriginal respondents for nine legal problem types. Foreign-born respondents had higher rates of immigration and discrimination problems than Canadian-born respondents. Self-identified members of ‘visible minority’ groups had higher rates of 10 problem types. When compared to respondents whose main language was French, those whose main language was English had higher rates of 11 problem types. In addition, Black Canadians had higher rates of six problem types.

Based on regression and other analyses, several US surveys found higher overall prevalence of legal problems for various non-White groups, including African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos/Hispanics and non-English speakers (CSRA 2003; Dale 2000, 2005, 2007; GKA 2006; LASNSC 2005; LSNJ 2009; Miller & Srivastava 2002; Schulman 2003, 2007; TALS 2004).

In New Zealand, Maxwell et al. (1999) found that legal problem prevalence was related to country of birth and Indigenous status. Respondents born in New Zealand reported higher rates of most problem types compared to those born elsewhere. Maoris had higher rates of most problem types compared to other ethnic groups.

In Australia, regressions by Coumarelos et al. (2006) indicated that Indigenous respondents had similar overall rates of legal problems to non-Indigenous respondents but had higher rates of credit/debt, employment and family legal events.(20) In addition, respondents born in a non-English-speaking country had lower overall prevalence rates than those born in an English-speaking country. Coumarelos et al. suggested that the results for people born in a non-English-speaking country, like those for people with low education levels, may reflect a failure to recognise legal problems. They noted that qualitative studies have reported that ignorance about legal rights and resolution among migrant and non-English-speaking groups exacerbates the legal problems they experience (e.g. Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) 1992; Cass & Sackville 1975).

Crime victimisation status

Crime victimisation is another factor that has been linked to high overall rates of legal problems (Kemp, Pleasence & Balmer 2007; Pleasence 2006). Kemp et al. (2007) noted that a strong link between crime victimisation and social exclusion is well established and mirrors the link between civil legal problems and social exclusion. Socially excluded groups are not only at high risk of crime victimisation and civil legal problems, but also at high risk of experiencing multiple instances of both. Using regression analysis on CSJS data, Kemp et al. estimated that multiple crime victimisation increases the risk of civil legal problems by 192 per cent, while indicators of social exclusion, such as disability, lone parenthood, receipt of welfare benefits and very low income, increase the risk of civil legal problems by 60, 136, 39 and 30 per cent, respectively. They concluded that the overlap between crime victimisation, civil legal problems and social exclusion indicates that strategies aimed at preventing, resolving or mitigating any of these three issues are likely to have a broad impact on the other two issues as well. Hence, an integrated service approach in response to these issues was argued to be more beneficial than focusing on any of these issues in isolation.

Urban, rural and remote areas

Some studies have examined the association between legal problem prevalence and urbanisation or geographical location. A few studies using regression or other analyses have found higher prevalence rates in more urban areas (Dignan 2006; GKA 2006; Gramatikov 2008; Miller & Srivastava 2002). In contrast, one study reported higher rates for rural respondents than for regional respondents (LASNSC 2005). In China, Michelson (2007a) found regional differences in legal problem prevalence. He also found that the number and type of problems in each region reflected the region’s economic and employment conditions. Maxwell et al. (1999) found that overall prevalence rates were not significantly different in rural and urban areas but found differences between rural and urban areas in the prevalence of particular problem types.

Vulnerability to multiple legal problems and disadvantage

The previous sections detailed the demographic factors that underlie whether or not legal problems are experienced. Additionally, a few studies have examined the demographic factors related to experiencing multiple or a greater number of legal problems. The evidence suggests that, as well as being more likely to experience legal problems, disadvantaged demographic groups are especially prone to experiencing multiple legal problems. However, more affluent demographic groups can sometimes also experience multiple legal problems.

First, regression analyses have shown links between disadvantage and multiple legal problems. Pleasence (2006) found that the following indicators of disadvantage predicted multiple legal problems: disability, welfare benefits, lone parenthood, high-density housing, rented housing and low income. Being male and having a high income also predicted multiple problems in some cases. Pleasence et al. (2010) supplemented the regressions with descriptive data showing that disadvantaged groups were increasingly overrepresented as the number of problems increased. For example, lone parents accounted for six per cent of the respondents reporting one problem, but for 22 per cent of those reporting at least six problems. Similarly striking patterns were evident for other disadvantaged groups. Of the respondents who had at least six problems, over 40 per cent had a disability, over 60 per cent had a mental illness and over 50 per cent received welfare benefits. Currie’s (2007b) regression analysis also revealed that disability and welfare benefits predicted multiple legal problems, and that these disadvantaged groups were increasingly overrepresented as the number of problems increased.(21)

Second, Pleasence (2006) and Currie (2007b) both reported that the groups that experienced multiple legal problems tended to experience problem types that are usually associated with social exclusion. Currie (2007b) argued that problems related to debt, disability pensions, housing and social assistance often indicate elements of social exclusion, reflecting a transition from self-sufficiency within mainstream society to dependency. These ‘problems of social exclusion’ were increasingly reported as the number of problems increased. For example, debt was reported by 20 per cent of all respondents, but by 79 per cent of those with at least six problems. Pleasence (2006) similarly found that vulnerability to legal problems related to relationship breakdown, homelessness, unfair police treatment, domestic violence and rented housing particularly increased as the number of problems increased.

Third, the demographic groups vulnerable to experiencing specific clusters of legal problems have been examined (Pleasence 2006; Pleasence, Balmer, Buck, O’Grady & Genn 2004b). As noted earlier, cluster analyses of CSJS data produced family, economic and homelessness clusters.(22) Regression results showed that disadvantaged groups were prone to experiencing multiple problems within each cluster. Specifically, lone parents, people with a disability and renters were particularly vulnerable to ‘family cluster’ problems. Welfare recipients, residents of high-density housing, people with a disability and low-income earners were particularly vulnerable to ‘economic cluster’ problems. Economically inactive respondents, welfare recipients, low-income earners, renters and people with a disability were particularly vulnerable to ‘homelessness cluster’ problems. Note that disability was associated with all three clusters, while low income and renting were each associated with two clusters. However, multiple problems were not solely confined to socially excluded groups. The most affluent groups had increased vulnerability to multiple problems in the family and economic clusters, and the clusters peaked at different ages.

Vulnerability and policy

The empirical evidence that social exclusion drives much of the experience of legal problems, including the experience of multiple, compounding legal problems, has led researchers to emphasise the importance of ensuring that legal services meet the needs of disadvantaged groups. In particular, the potential benefits of targeting the disadvantaged groups that are prone to multiple disadvantage and multiple legal problems, such as people with a disability, lone parents and people on welfare benefits, have been propounded. Furthermore, given their vulnerability to multiple legal problems, it has been argued that holistic, client-focused approaches to legal service provision for such disadvantaged groups are likely to have considerable value (e.g. Buck et al. 2005; Coumarelos et al. 2006; Currie 2007b; Forell et al. 2005; Maxwell et al. 1999; Pleasence 2006; Sandefur 2007, 2008).

Given that such disadvantaged or socially excluded groups can experience a broad range of non-legal problems in addition to their legal problems, a complete solution to their problems may require both legal assistance and broader non-legal support through other human services. Accordingly, the value of a coordinated response to the legal and non-legal needs of socially excluded groups is increasingly being proposed (Buck & Curran 2009; Buck, Smith, Sidaway & Scanlan 2010b; Coumarelos et al. 2006; Curran 2007; Forell et al. 2005; Forell & Gray 2009; Moorhead, Robinson & Matrix Research and Consultancy 2006; Noone 2007, 2009; Pleasence 2006). For example, the coordination, integration or co-location of legal services with other services, such as health, housing, financial, social, welfare, family and crime victim services, has been advocated (Buck et al. 2010b; Kemp et al. 2007; Moorhead et al. 2006; Pleasence 2006; Pleasence, Balmer & Buck 2007a; Pleasence, Balmer, Buck, Smith & Patel 2007b; Pleasence, Buck, Balmer & Williams 2007c).

In the UK, several initiatives have improved coordination between legal and other human services. These include co-locating citizens advice bureau services within health settings and setting up Community Legal Advice Centres (CLACs) and Networks (CLANs) to deliver integrated social welfare law services (Balmer et al. 2006; Legal Services Commission 2006; Pleasence 2006).(23) However, several challenges in implementing these initiatives suggested that successfully joining up services is a complex process requiring considerable planning, resources and support (Buck et al. 2010b; Buck, Smith, Sidaway & Balmer 2010a; Fox, Moorhead, Sefton & Wong 2010; Smith & Patel 2010).

In Australia, there has been only limited discussion about what joined-up or integrated legal services would entail (Noone 2007, 2009). Recently, the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG 2010) National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services proposed reforms to increase collaboration among legal services, and also between legal services and other services.

Promoting access to justice is therefore seen as one important route to tackling social exclusion (Pleasence 2006). Additionally, however, it has been argued that policies concerning access to justice need to be set out in a broader context than that of social exclusion. Despite the tight nexus between social exclusion and legal problems, the evidence also shows that legal problems are frequently encountered by people from all walks of life, including people of all ages and people from more affluent backgrounds. Thus, it has been argued that policies concerning access to justice must be broadly directed to enable all citizens to make effective use of the available legal remedies (Currie 2007b; Genn 1999; Pleasence 2006). For example, the age-related experience of legal problems suggests that there may be benefits to tailoring legal information, education and advice strategies for different age groups, so that the problems typically faced at various life stages can be resolved efficiently (Balmer et al. 2010; Coumarelos et al. 2006; Dignan 2006; Macdonald 2005; Pleasence 2006).

14. As argued by Pleasence (2006), in addition to being driven by sociodemographic characteristics, patterns of vulnerability may be driven by people’s physical make-up, experience, resources and disposition.

15. An observed relationship between vulnerability and one indicator of disadvantage may be driven by a second indicator. Take the hypothetical case where unemployment increases vulnerability but low income does not. A relationship between low income and vulnerability may be observed simply because many people in the low-income group are also unemployed.

16. Regressions can be conducted as multivariate analyses that examine the relationship of an outcome variable to multiple predictor variables. Bivariate analyses examine the direct relationship between two variables (see Chapter 2, ‘Data analysis’ section).

17. The likely effects of other methodological differences (e.g. differences in coverage of legal problems, modes of data collection, jurisdictional factors and populational factors) are more difficult to predict.

18. Note, however, that a few of the US studies reported similar prevalence rates for their low- and middle-income subgroups (GKA 2006, 2008; Miller & Srivastava 2002; TALS 2004).

19. Although, like high-income earners, welfare recipients had high rates of consumer problems, the latter group were more likely to experience consumer problems reflecting low-value purchases of basic items, such as food and small appliances (see Pleasence 2006).

20. Indigenous respondents also had lower rates of wills/estates events. It was noted that the wills/estates events tended to indicate taking positive legal action to put one’s affairs in order rather than constituting problems. Thus, it was argued that the lower rate of wills/estates events for Indigenous respondents was consistent with a higher level of unmet legal need.

21. According to bivariate analyses, a number of other disadvantaged groups were also more likely to experience multiple problems — namely, single parents, visible minority ethnic groups, Aboriginals, Black Canadians, unemployed people, people without university education and low-income earners. Younger people and people living outside Quebec were also more likely to experience multiple problems according to these analyses (Currie 2007b).

22. The family cluster included divorce, domestic violence and relationship breakdown problems. The economic cluster included consumer, employment, money/debt, neighbours, owned and rented housing, personal injury and welfare benefits problems. The homelessness cluster included action against the respondent, homelessness and unfair police treatment.

23. The ongoing operation of CLACs and CLANs is uncertain, given the likely cut to legal aid spending as part of the recently proposed 23 per cent reduction in the annual budget for the Ministry of Justice by 2014–2015 (Ministry of Justice 2010).

  


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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