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How people solve legal problems: level of disadvantage and legal capability, Justice issues paper 23   

, 2016 The paper provides compelling new evidence from the Legal Australia-Wide (LAW) Survey demonstrating the lower legal capability of multiply disadvantaged people. The most disadvantaged respondents were found to be significantly more likely to take no action in response to their legal problems. In addition, when they did take action, they were significantly less likely to use self-help resources, and significantly more likely to use not-for-profit legal services, than those less disadvantaged. Further, despite their greater use of not-for-profit legal services, the most disadvantaged group had significantly lower awareness of such services. Implications for policy and effective legal assistance services are discussed. The findings clearly signal the vital role of not-for-profit legal services in extending access to justice to the most disadvantaged members of the Australian community. In addition, given the high use of health or welfare advisers by the most disadvantaged group, the results also point to collaboration between these advisers and public legal services as a key strategy to enhance access to justice for the most disadvantaged.


Measures and analyses


Level of disadvantage
Respondents’ level of disadvantage was measured using a count of the following nine indicators or types of disadvantage: disability, disadvantaged housing, Indigenous background, low education level, low income, non-English main language, living in a remote or outer regional area, single parenthood, and unemployment.3 Respondents were grouped according to the number of types of disadvantage they had: ‘none’, ‘1 or 2 types’ or ‘3 or more types’. In total there were 7218 respondents in the ‘none’ group (35% of all respondents), 10 612 respondents in the ‘1 or 2 types’ group (51%) and 2887 respondents with ‘3 or more types’ group (14%).

Legal problem-solving actions
This paper examines six types of action taken in response to legal problems4, namely:
Legal problem-solving strategy
Sometimes more than one of the above actions was used in response to a legal problem. As a result, these actions were also used to define the highest-level legal problem-solving strategy used for each problem, that is, irrespective of whether or not any lower types of action were also used.11 The strategies were ranked from lowest to highest was: (1) ‘no action’, (2) ‘act without professional information or advice’, (3) ‘self-help resource’, (4) ‘non-legal adviser’, (5) ‘private lawyer,12 (6) ‘not-for-profit legal service’ (i.e. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services (ALS), a community legal centre (CLC), a court service, legal aid).13 This ranking reflects respondents’ problem-solving behaviour in terms of their agency in obtaining information and advice, and using private and public legal services (i.e. not-for-profit legal services). This order was purposefully chosen to identify all respondents who used a not-for-profit legal service to try to resolve their legal problems whether or not they also used private lawyers and other strategies.

Awareness of not-for-profit legal services
The LAW Survey measured both cued (i.e. prompted) and uncued awareness of not-for-profit legal services (Coumarelos et al. 2012). This paper employs the uncued awareness measure which asked respondents to name services that provide free legal information, advice or assistance without any prompting.14

Analysis
Bivariate statistics were used to examine the relationship between level of disadvantage and (i) each of the six actions in response to legal problems, (ii) types of advisers used and (iii) awareness of not-for-profit legal services.15

Next, a multilevel binary logistic regression model was fitted to test the independent influence of level of disadvantage on taking action in response to legal problems.16 The dependent variable was whether or not respondents had taken any of the six types of actions. The other independent (or predictor) variables controlled for in the regression were gender, age, awareness of not-for-profit legal services, legal problem type classified, and problem severity (see Coumarelos et al. 2012). The influence of level of disadvantage and awareness of not-for-profit legal services on taking action was further examined by controlling for the interaction between these variables.17 The full set of predictors used in the regression on taking action is presented in Appendix Table 1.

Finally, a multilevel multinomial logistic regression model was fitted to test the independent influence of level of disadvantage on the highest-level legal problem-solving strategy, controlling for the same predictor variables as above, with the exception of the interaction between disadvantage and awareness of not-for-profit legal services.18 The full set of predictors used in the regression on highest-level legal problem-solving strategy is presented in Appendix Table 2.


 See Coumarelos et al. (2012) for definitions of disability, disadvantaged housing, Indigenous background, low education level, non-English main language, single parenthood, and unemployment. Low income was defined as having a before tax personal income less than $20,800 (equivalent to less than $400/week) or a combined income with a partner of less than $41,600 (equivalent to less than $800/week). For young people (i.e. those aged from 15 years up to 22 years) living with a parent or guardians, low income was similarly defined as an income of less than $20,800 for a single parent/guardian and $41,600 for partnered parents/guardians. Living in a remote or outer regional area was defined to include living in a very remote area, remote area and outer regional area, and was distinguished from living in an inner regional area and major city area.
 Note that LAW Survey respondents who reported experiencing legal problems were asked a series of in-depth questions about up to three of their most serious problems, including questions about any actions taken to try to resolve the problem. The pool of up to three of the most serious problems for each respondent was determined as follows. The LAW Survey asked about 129 specific types of legal problems. Respondents who had experienced legal problems were asked to order the different specific types of legal problems they had experienced in terms of seriousness, and then identify the worst instance of each specific type. The worst instance of the three most serious specific types of problems were then followed up in depth. Respondents who had experienced fewer than three specific types of problems were only asked about the worst instance of the (one or two) specific types they had experienced.
 `No action` was defined as the respondent not taking any of the five action types in this paper (see Coumarelos et al. 2012).
 `Act without professional information or advice` was defined as the respondent talking to family or friends in an informal or non-professional capacity, communicating with the other side, as well as having a matter that involved or was likely to involve court, tribunal or dispute resolution processes, and was distinguished from seeking advice from of a legal or non-legal professional as well as use of a self-help resource. Note that communication with the other side entailed the respondent, or someone on the respondent`s behalf, talking or writing directly to the other side to try to resolve the problem (see Coumarelos et al. 2012).
 `Self-help resource` was defined as the respondent obtaining information from a website, book, leaflet and self-help guide. Note that use of self-help resources entailed the respondent, or someone on the respondent’s behalf, obtaining information without having direct contact with a professional or organisation (see Coumarelos et al. 2012).
 `Non-legal adviser` was defined as seeking information or advice from a non-legal professional or organisation such as a dispute/complain-handling, government, health or welfare, financial adviser etc. (see Coumarelos et al. 2012).
 `Private lawyer` was defined as the respondent seeking information or advice from a private legal practitioner such as a solicitor or barrister (see Coumarelos et al. 2012).
10  `Not-for-profit legal service` was defined as the respondent seeking information or advice from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal service (ALS), community legal centre (CLC), court service, and legal aid (see Coumarelos et al. 2012).
11  This measure of strategy expands on the measure used by Coumarelos et al. (2012) which classified actions into three broad strategies, `sought advice`, `handled without advice` and `took no action`, and Iriana, Pleasence and Coumarelos (2013) who classified actions into four categories: `taking no action`, `handling the problem without formal advice`, using a `non-legal professional` and using a `legal professional`.
12  Note that `private lawyer` includes a small number of other legal advisers who were not further specified (e.g. `lawyer`, `barrister`, `QC` etc.), as well as other organisations that were not further specified, such as legal services provided by an employer, union or insurance company. Note that these other legal advisers were used for less than one per cent of legal problems.
13  These six strategies were obtained by separating two of three broad strategies defined by Coumarelos et al. (2012) as follows: `handled without advice` was separated into `act without professional information or advice` and `self-help resource`
14  and `sought advice` was separated into `non-legal adviser`, `private lawyer` and `not-for-profit legal services`.
15  Uncued awareness was measured using the following question: `Can you name any services that provide free legal information, advice or assistance?`
16  Adjusted versions of the standard chi-square test were used, which applied a second-order Rao-Scott correction to accommodate weighted and clustered data (Rao & Scott 1984).
17  The model was implemented using MLwiN (Rasbash, Steele, Brown & Goldstein 2009). The model had a three-level hierarchical structure, with legal problem nested within respondent, and respondent nested within state.
18  This model was tested both including and excluding the interaction between level of disadvantage and awareness of not-for-profit legal services. As the model with the interaction was a better fit according to the Deviance Information Criterion (see Browne 2015), the interaction was included in the final model.