Note: the original hard copy of this report is 14 pages .

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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.


Findings


Level of disadvantage and actions in response to legal problems
Table 1 presents the bivariate relationship between level of disadvantage and each of the six legal problem-solving actions. Note that Table 1 includes all of the actions respondents used, and that multiple actions were used for some problems (see Coumarelos et al. 2012). Table 1 shows that the proportion of legal problems where no action was taken increased significantly with respondents’ level of disadvantage. The most disadvantaged respondents (i.e. those with 3 or more types of disadvantage) took no action in response to one in five (20.3%) legal problems. By comparison, respondents with no disadvantage took no action for only 16.5 per cent of their problems.


Overall, acting without professional information or advice (such as consulting family and friends informally, or communicating with the other side) and use of a non-legal adviser were the most frequently taken actions. These actions were, however, unrelated to respondents’ level of disadvantage. There were significant differences in use of a self-help resource and not-for-profit legal service by respondents’ level of disadvantage. Use of a not-for-profit legal service was highest amongst the most disadvantaged group. The most disadvantaged, in fact, used a not-for-profit legal service for nearly three times as many legal problems as did respondents who were not disadvantaged (8.5% v. 3.1% of legal problems). The most disadvantaged were the group least likely to use a self-help resource to try to resolve their legal problems (14.9% v. 19.6–21.7% of legal problems).

While use of private lawyers was unrelated to level of disadvantage, they were used for just over one in ten legal problems by each group of respondents (10.7–11.4% of legal problems), and private lawyers were the type of legal adviser used for the highest proportion of legal problems irrespective of respondents’ level of disadvantage.

Level of disadvantage and use of advisers
When respondents sought advice, there were significant differences in the type of adviser used by people disadvantage (see Figure 1). Note that respondents often used multiple advisers (see Coumarelos et al. 2012). Use of dispute or complaint-handling advisers and private lawyers was unrelated to respondents’ level of disadvantage. However, there were significant differences by respondents’ level of disadvantage in the use of financial advisers, government advisers, health or welfare advisers, not-for-profit legal services and trade or professional associations (see Figure 1).



Use of health or welfare advisers and use of not-for-profit legal services both increased significantly with respondents’ level of disadvantage, while use of financial advisers and use of trade or professional associations decreased. Compared to those who were not disadvantaged, the most disadvantaged used health or welfare advisers and not-for-profit legal services for more than 2.5 times as many legal problems (42.0% v. 16.5% and 16.2% v. 6.1%, respectively). At least in part, these findings are likely to reflect the types of legal problems more commonly experienced by respondents within the different levels of disadvantage (see Coumarelos et al. 2012).

Level of disadvantage and awareness of not-for-profit legal services
Figure 2 reports the bivariate relationship between respondents’ awareness of not-for-profit legal services and level of disadvantage. Awareness of community legal centres and legal aid was significantly lower among the most disadvantaged. For instance, while 47.5 per cent of respondents who were not disadvantaged were aware of legal aid, only 34.8 per cent of the most disadvantaged were similarly aware. Although awareness of ALS also declined on raw numbers, this decrease was not significant.19 Comparatively fewer respondents (around 3%) were aware of services from courts, and there was no significant variation by level of disadvantage.



Level of disadvantage and taking action
Regression analysis was used to examine the independent effect of level of disadvantage on whether any action was taken (see Appendix Table 1).20 Consistent with previous findings, the type and the severity of the legal problem were the strongest significant independent predictors of taking action (Coumarelos et al. 2012; Iriana, Pleasence & Coumarelos 2013; Coumarelos, Pleasence & Wei 2013). For example, respondents were more likely to take action for more severe problems.

Nonetheless, level of disadvantage was also a significant independent predictor of action being taken, as were awareness of not-for-profit legal services, gender and age. Compared to respondents who were not disadvantaged, respondents with one or two types of disadvantage had significantly lower odds of taking action (odds ratio (OR) = 0.78), and the most disadvantaged had even lower odds (OR = 0.62), even after differences in legal problem type and severity of legal problems were taken into account (see Appendix Table 1). These regression results for level of disadvantage reveal a similar picture to the percentages in Table 1. Unsurprisingly, compared to respondents who were unaware of not-for-profit legal services, those who were aware had significantly higher odds of taking action (OR = 1.20; see Appendix Table 1).

The regression also revealed a significant interactive effect between awareness of not-for-profit legal services and level of disadvantage (see Appendix Table 1). The direction of this interaction is illustrated in Figure 3, which shows the estimated probability of taking action by respondents’ level of disadvantage and awareness of not-for-profit legal services, based on the regression results.21 Although the likelihood of taking action increased with awareness of not-for-profit legal services irrespective of level of disadvantage, the increase was greatest for the most disadvantage group. In fact, such awareness reduced the likelihood of inaction for the most disadvantage group by 30.2 per cent.22



Level of disadvantage and hierarchical legal problem-solving strategy
Regression analysis was also used to examine the independent effect of respondents’ level of disadvantage on the highest-level strategy adopted when action was taken.23 The regression was based on the five strategies other than ‘no action’ and compared acting without professional information or advice to each of the other four strategies (see Appendix Table 2).

Consistent with previous findings, gender, age and awareness of not-for-profit legal services, as well as problem type and severity, were all significant predictors of the highest-level strategy in response to legal problems (see Appendix Table 2; Coumarelos et al. 2012; Iriana, Pleasence & Coumarelos 2013; Coumarelos, Pleasence & Wei 2013). Awareness of not-for-profit legal services increased the likelihood of using such services as the highest-level strategy rather than acting without professional information or advice, and also increased the likelihood of using non-legal advisers as the highest-level strategy.

Independent of these predictors, level of disadvantage also had a significant effect on respondents’ highest-level legal problem-solving strategy. The regression results for level of disadvantage in Appendix Table 2 are consistent with the percentages in Table 2. The most disadvantaged were significantly more likely than non-disadvantaged respondents to use not-for-profit legal services as their highest-level strategy (16.5% v. 2.4–6.1%) rather than to act without professional information or advice. The results for the other strategies were in the opposite direction. The most disadvantaged were significantly less likely than non-disadvantaged respondents to use a self-help resource as their highest-level strategy (3.6% v. 10.2–11.0%) rather than to act without professional information or advice. They were also significantly less likely than the non-disadvantaged to use a non-legal adviser (37.3% v. 43.3–46.8%) or a private lawyer (11.2% v. 12.4–14.5%) as their highest-level strategy rather than to act without professional information or advice.24



The regression results also show that, compared to acting without professional information or advice, respondents who adopted a particular strategy as their highest-level strategy for one legal problem were significantly more likely to adopt the same strategy for other legal problems (see random effects in Appendix Table 2).25


19  Note that only Indigenous LAW Survey respondents were asked about their awareness of ALSs, and the figure is based on a weighted total of 348 Indigenous respondents. Note also that because Indigenous status was included as one of the indicators of disadvantage in the level of disadvantage measure, Figure 2 reports the number of Indigenous respondents who were aware of ALS services by the number of other indicators of disadvantage they had.
20  As noted earlier, this model was a better fit with the interaction between level of disadvantage and awareness of not-for-profit legal services included as a predictor. Thus, the interaction was included in the final model.
21  Figure 3 graphs the predicted probably of taking action in response to legal problems by respondents` level of disadvantage, controlling for the other factors in the Appendix Table 1 regression model, namely gender, age, awareness of not-for-profit legal services, and problem severity and type.
22  (0.831 - 0.758)/(1 - 0.758) *100 = 30.2%.
23  As noted earlier, the final version of this model excluded the interaction between level of disadvantage and awareness of not-for-profit legal services, as the model was a better fit without the interaction.
24  To examine the effect of the hierarchical ordering, the regression analysis was repeated using private lawyer instead of not-for-profit legal services as the highest-level strategy. The results were very similar. While the direction of the relationships between variables was unchanged, there were changes in significance level. For level of disadvantage, the only difference was that respondents with `1 or 2 types` of disadvantage were found to be marginally more likely to use a private lawyer as their highest-level strategy, and marginally less likely to have used a not-for-profit legal service. This result may possibly be explained by respondents who were referred to a private lawyer by a not-for-profit legal service and by respondents who received a grant of legal aid and were represented by a private lawyer.
25  Appendix Table 2 shows that, compared to acting without professional information or advice, `person` in the random effects was significant for each strategy. Examination of the covariance between strategies in the multinomial regression revealed a moderate correlation (r=0.30-0.45) between all of the strategies except for not-for-profit legal services and self-help resources, where there was a weak negative correlation (r=-0.11). This indicates that respondents who used a not-for-profit legal service as their highest-level strategy for one legal problem were unlikely to use a self-help resource for their other problems.