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Research Report: The legal information needs of older people
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The legal information needs of older people    Cite this report

, 2004 , 73 p.
This literature review examines the legal information needs and pathways of older Australians and the most effective ways of providing information to them.

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Executive Summary


This literature review aims to promote the improved dissemination of legal information to older people. It examines the legal information needs of older Australians and the most effective ways of providing information to them. Very little material, however, is available on older people's legal information needs and seeking behaviour. For this reason, this review includes reports and articles that look at information needs and the sources used in other areas, particularly health.

Although an extensive literature search was conducted, the material included in this review is selective rather than exhaustive. It contains reports and articles cited in major Australian databases.

The report is divided into two parts. Part 1—the literature review—presents the key findings based on the material. Part 2 presents summaries for some of the key articles and reports cited in the literature review. The executive summary contains the key findings and points from Part 1.

Key points and findings

The legal information needs of older people

Older people find it difficult to identify what they need or want to know about their legal rights. Studies on the legal needs of older people found that they need information on the legal aspects of:

  • Accommodation and housing e.g. nature of tenancy, rights of renters
  • Health related issues e.g. advanced health care directives
  • Financial and consumer related legal issues e.g. eligibility for services
  • Discrimination related issues e.g. employment, provision of services
  • Elder abuse issues e.g. psychological and financial abuse and neglect
  • Grandparenting issues
  • Substitute decision-making and end of life issues e.g. wills and probate.

They also need information on where and how to make a complaint when dealing with issues related to the above topics.

Older people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, Aboriginal older people, the socially isolated, and those living in remote areas need information on similar topics but their priorities may differ and their needs may be stronger.

Awareness and knowledge of services and information

  • Many older people are unaware that they have information needs. They have a low awareness of services and the sources of information available to them. In particular, there is low awareness of and knowledge about legal issues and legal services and information sources.
  • Older people are unaware of their legal rights and of the increasing amount of legislation which has been enacted to strengthen these rights.
  • Their knowledge of enduring powers of attorney and advanced health directives is low.

Awareness and knowledge is lower among the following groups of older people:
  • the 'decisional dependent', that is, older people who are willing to give control of their affairs to other people
  • those with lower incomes and wealth
  • Aboriginal people
  • those who are disabled
  • those who are from CALD backgrounds
  • some who live in rural and remote areas.

Information acquisition

Many older people, like the population as a whole, do relatively little information seeking when they are facing a problem or critical situation. Often only one source is approached.

In addition, many do not seek information until it is needed—"until the time comes". For example, many think there is no need to worry about enduring power of attorney or an advanced health directive until later in life, or they believe their family will take care of issues such as substitute decision-making.

In retrospect, however, older people often wished they had sought more information before "the time came". Other key findings about information acquisition include:

  • Level of education, income, cultural background and education influence the number of information acquisition activities and the sources used.
  • Commonly used information sources are:
    • family and friends
    • face-to-face oral information followed up by written information
    • local newspapers and large city dailies
    • magazines
    • telephone
    • professionals e.g. doctors, chemists
    • local council
    • radio
    • brochures and pamphlets.
  • Preferred/valued sources and channels for legal information include:
    • lawyers
    • family and friends
    • a professional from their own cultural group.
Barriers to information acquisition

Barriers to information acquisition can arise from the characteristics of older people themselves or from the characteristics of information providers. Barriers associated with the characteristics of older people include:

  • reluctance to think about death and disabilities and the associated issues
  • low literacy levels among both English speakers and those from a non-English speaking background
  • lack of confidence in enforcing their rights
  • perceptions that the law is disempowering and cannot solve their problems
  • fear that lawyers may act against their interests.

Barriers can also result from the characteristics of information providers. These may include:
  • high costs
  • stereotypes about older people
  • a lack of interest by legal practitioners in older clients
  • lack of knowledge about older people or the legal issues they face
  • lack of legal aid services.

Barriers that limit older people's use of available complaint procedures include:
  • reluctance to complain
  • lack of awareness of how to make a complaint
  • fear of retributions from service providers.

Information provision strategies

As many older people do not realise they have legal information needs, it is necessary to take a proactive approach when promoting services. Providers should help to make older people aware of their needs, for example, the importance of making arrangements for end of life contingencies.

In addition, the diversity of older people means that it is important to select specific target groups/segments and develop different messages and strategies for each group.

There is general agreement on which information provision strategies are most effective: face-to-face methods are recommended by both older people and by providers. These should be supplemented by printed information. In addition, local newspapers, presentations, radio (particularly talkback radio), telephone information services, and television are recommended.

Additional strategies for dissemination of information to older people about legal issues include:

  • formal talks from experts
  • pamphlets and brochures
  • a public education campaign to raise awareness of issues such as enduring powers of attorney and legal rights.
  • a specialist legal service for older people.

Regardless of the dissemination method selected, it should ensure:
  • confidentiality
  • reasonable costs which are known ahead of time
  • lawyers who demonstrate friendliness, warmth, ability to communicate and a respectful attitude
  • lawyers from different cultural backgrounds.


Providing information to older people is complex because of the diversity of the group and many older people's low perception of their needs. Many different pathways to information need to be provided. There has, however, been limited empirical evidence on the effectiveness of different methods and strategies. Further research is needed in this area and on when older people need legal information, how they acquire it and what they do with the information when it is provided.


Edwards, S & Fontana, A 2004, The legal information needs of older people, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, <>