The ubiquitous nature and pervasiveness of legal needs underline the importance of having a legal system that recognises and resolves these issues quickly and effectively. However, in order to evaluate the adequacy of existing legal services or new policies regarding legal services, a thorough understanding of the nature and number of legal problems people experience, and their reactions to these problems, is a prerequisite.
Empirical research concerning access to justice and legal need can be traced back to the 1930s in the United States. Since that time, such research has been conducted in many countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Canada. However, prior to the 1990s, the study of legal needs proceeded largely in the absence of reliable quantitative data about the incidence of different types of legal needs, the strategies employed to address legal needs, the sources approached for assistance in relation to legal needs, and the extent to which legal needs are satisfactorily resolved. Furthermore, earlier quantitative studies tended to employ narrow definitions of legal needs or to focus predominantly on legal issues usually addressed by the formal legal process (Genn 1999; Pleasence et al. 2004b).
In the last decade or so, a number of significant large-scale survey studies measuring the incidence of, response to, and outcome of a wide range of legal needs were conducted overseas, notably in the United States (e.g. American Bar Association (ABA) 1994), the United Kingdom (e.g. Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001; Pleasence et al. 2004b) and New Zealand (Maxwell, Smith, Shepherd & Morris 1999). In comparison to overseas, the quantitative study of legal needs in Australia has lagged behind. Although some survey studies into legal issues have been conducted in Australia (e.g. Cass & Sackville 1975; Fishwick 1992; Rush Social Research and John Walker Consulting Services (Rush) 1996; Rush Social Research Agency (Rush) 1999), large-scale surveys focusing on the incidence and response to a wide range of legal needs have not been conducted in recent years.
The broad aim of the present study was to provide a quantitative assessment of the legal needs of disadvantaged communities in New South Wales (NSW). This study was the most comprehensive quantitative investigation of legal needs undertaken in Australia for about 30 years. It involved conducting a legal needs survey of residents in six disadvantaged local government areas (LGAs) across NSW, including urban, provincial and rural/remote areas. Within these disadvantaged communities, the study examined: