Note: the original hard copy of this report is 24 pages .

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The legal needs of people with different types of chronic illness or disability, Justice issues paper 11   

, 2009 Consistent with overseas research, Justice made to measure: NSW Legal Needs Survey in disadvantaged areas reported that people with a chronic illness or disability are particularly vulnerable to experiencing legal problems and have difficulty resolving these problems. However, `chronic illness or disability` constitutes a diverse range of conditions and very little research to date has compared and contrasted the legal needs of people with different types of illness or disability. Using data from the NSW Legal Needs Survey, this paper compares people with different types of chronic illness or disability on their incidence of legal problems, their rates of taking action in response to these problems and their resolution rates.


Type of adviser


Participants with a disability

In line with recent overseas research (e.g. Genn 1999; Maxwell, Smith, Shepherd & Morris 1999; Pleasence et al. 2004b; 2006), Coumarelos et al. (2006) reported that when participants sought help for events that had legal implications, they used legal advisers only rarely. ‘Legal advisers’ were used in only one-quarter of cases, and included traditional legal advisers, such as private lawyers, local courts, Legal Aid NSW, LawAccess NSW, Aboriginal legal services and community legal centres (CLCs), as well as less formal legal advisers such as friends or relatives who are lawyers, and legal information through published sources (e.g. the internet). In three-quarters of cases, ‘non-legal advisers’ were used. These included non-legal professionals (e.g. doctors, accountants, psychologists, counsellors), friends or relatives without legal training, government organisations, trade unions or professional bodies, insurance companies/brokers, school staff and the police (see Coumarelos et al. 2006, pp. 103–105).

These findings indicated that even when people do seek help for issues that have legal implications, they sometimes address only the non-legal aspects of these issues, such as medical and financial aspects, and do not address the legal aspects.

Although participants with a disability sought help at similar rates to other participants, it was of interest to examine whether the pattern of advisers used by these two groups was similar. Participants of the Coumarelos et al. (2006) survey who sought help for any of their three most recent legal events were asked to provide information on the type of adviser they consulted first in each case. Participants with a disability sought help for 391 legal events while participants without a disability sought help for 1101 legal events. Table 10 presents the first adviser consulted broken down by disability status. A chi-square test comparing first adviser for those with and without a disability was conducted using the 16 categories of adviser listed in Table 10.25

Although the pattern of first advisers used was similar for most of the adviser types, the chi-square was significant and indicated differences in the use of four adviser types.26 Specifically, compared to other participants, those with a disability were (see Table 10):


While we cannot be sure about the reasons for these differences, they are consistent with the findings that participants with a disability have increased vulnerability to a wide range of legal problems, are more likely to experience multiple legal problems, and also experience various non-legal (e.g. health) problems. More specifically, the finding that participants with a disability are less likely to use published sources may reflect that they have multiple, complex (legal and non-legal) problems that are not especially conducive to self-help strategies. Furthermore, the findings that participants with a disability are more likely to use non-legal professionals and non-legal community groups as their first adviser in response to legal events are consistent with the notion that these participants are likely to have important non-legal (e.g. health) needs that they wish to address. In some cases, they may already be in contact with non-legal advisers to address non-legal needs when the legal events occur.28