Justice made to measure: NSW legal needs survey in disadvantaged areas ( 2006 ) Cite this report
Ch 10. Towards improving access to justice: a multidimensional approach
Future research on legal needs
The present study identified the particular legal needs of some disadvantaged sociodemographic groups such as people with a chronic illness or disability, and Indigenous Australians. Future studies could usefully identify the legal issues that have particular importance for other demographic groups, such as the young, the homeless and those in institutions.6 Furthermore, the present group of people with a chronic illness or disability included people with a diverse range of conditions, including mental health problems, intellectual and learning disabilities, sensory disabilities, and chronic physical conditions. It would be worthwhile for future research to clarify whether the different sub-groups within this broad group experience similar or unique legal needs.
The present study found relatively low rates of reported legal needs for older people, people born in a non-English speaking country, people with low income and people with low levels of education, despite the fact that these groups are typically considered to be disadvantaged groups who have special legal needs (e.g. ABS 2003b; Australian Law Reform Commission 1992; Ellison et al. 2004; Tilse et al. 2002; Urbis Keys Young 2002; Women’s Legal Resources Centre 1994; Worthington et al. 2001). A question for future research is whether these lower reporting rates truly reflect lower incidence rates rather than merely a greater inability or reluctance to identify legal needs.
The present study compared the sociodemographic characteristics of individuals who did not experience legal issues with those who did. Future studies could complement this work by identifying the sociodemographic profiles of those who experience multiple legal issues.7 For example, how do these individuals differ from individuals who do not experience legal issues and how do they differ from those who only experience one legal issue? There may be important differences in the nature and patterns of legal incidents amongst those reporting multiple events and those reporting only one. Future studies could also examine the sociodemographic profiles of those who experience serious legal issues rather than more trivial legal issues.8
Some types of legal issues were found to cluster together. Where individuals do experience multiple legal issues, it would be valuable to identify the issues that act as trigger events and to determine the value of resolving these issues quickly.
A third of the present sample reported no legal needs within the one-year reference period. Future studies could usefully investigate possible ‘protective’ factors that make people more resilient to legal problems, and how such protective factors could be promoted across the community at large or across vulnerable communities in particular.
As noted in the introduction, the study of legal needs has largely been isolated from the study of the broader array of human needs that drive consumer decision-making and related behaviour. The forces affecting the emergence of human needs and wants and their ultimate satisfaction are well charted in other disciplines and guide much of the literature on consumer behaviour, consumer satisfaction, services marketing and communications theory (e.g. Hanna 1980; Maslow 1970; Sheth et al. 1999). This literature is seeing increasing application to service provision in areas such as health services, other government services, higher education and the arts. Studying legal needs within this broader context has the potential to deepen our understanding of legal needs and legal service provision.
Finally, the importance of repeated survey assessments of legal needs to identify trends in the incidence and pattern of legal needs cannot be overstated. It cannot be assumed that the incidence, nature and pattern of legal needs across the population and within particular population groups will remain static. Changes to the profile of legal needs may well occur with changes in the demographic profile and life circumstances of the population, changes to the law and changes to the system of legal service delivery. Regular assessment of legal needs is necessary to inform the ongoing updating and prioritisation of legal service provision. Regular assessment of legal needs would also enable projections of service use by the population and by different population sub-groups. For example, is the lower reported rate of legal needs by older people a new phenomenon? If it is, what does this say about the future of legal service delivery given the demographic shift to an older Australia? Are we heading towards a less demanding period for the types of legal services accessed by older people, or is any such trend offset by increased service demands by other sociodemographic groups?
Future research on legal service provision
It was found that people were less likely to seek legal help for some types of legal issues, particularly consumer and human rights issues. Future research in NSW and in Australia could gainfully explore whether this tendency reflects low demand or inadequate supply of services. For example, to what extent is failing to seek help a function of the lack of seriousness of an issue rather than a function of the existing services being inadequate or a function of the existing services being inaccurately perceived as inadequate? These three possibilities would have different implications for service provision. The first would not indicate a need for changes to service provision, while the second would indicate updating service provision and the third would suggest information strategies to correct inaccurate perceptions of services.
As noted earlier, it would be beneficial for future research to examine the reasons behind the increased tendency of Indigenous Australians to ignore their legal problems. For instance, to what extent is this tendency driven by cultural factors or the disabling effect of multiple disadvantage? Similarly, future research could examine the reasons why younger people, older people and people with low levels of education were less likely to seek help for their legal problems.
The current study demonstrated that some people were able to deal with their legal issues on their own while others had increased difficulty in resolving their legal issues. In particular, people with a chronic illness or disability had lower resolution rates. It would be valuable for future studies to determine the reasons behind these lower resolution rates. What are the particular barriers these people experience in accessing justice and at what point within the legal resolution process are these barriers experienced?
In addition, future research could also identify the factors that make people successfully self-reliant in dealing with some or all of their legal problems. What are the characteristics of the individuals for whom self-help strategies or unbundled service provision would be particularly appropriate? Can we better foster self-reliance?
The present study also highlighted the value of measuring expectations about the outcome of legal issues when evaluating the adequacy of legal service provision. Inappropriate expectations about the outcome of a legal issue may not only lower the satisfaction with the legal advice received for that issue, but may also inhibit people from seeking advice in the future.
Another useful exercise would be to compare survey data measuring legal needs with data on the use of legal services. Survey data provide a picture of latent legal need, including legal need that remains unaddressed, whereas service use data provide a picture of legal service provision. A comparison between the two has the potential to enhance our understanding of the extent to which the pattern of legal service provision mirrors the pattern of legal needs. It may throw light on whether there are gaps in service provision for certain types of legal problems, for certain demographic groups or in certain geographic areas. For example, is the high level of legal need among people with a chronic illness or disability appropriately reflected in the use of legal services? Does the low rate of usage of certain types of legal services reflect a low level of need or a limited availability of such services?
In addition, survey data could be used to identify the pathways that people use to resolve their legal issues. For example, which advisers do individuals tend to consult first, and what route is taken from one adviser to the next? How efficient is the referral between advisers?
The value of regular surveys to examine trends in the incidence and pattern of legal needs was advocated above. Recurrent surveys could also be used to monitor trends in help-seeking behaviour, in satisfaction with legal information, advice and assistance services, in resolution of legal issues, and in satisfaction with outcomes. Such trends would throw some light on how well legal services are meeting demands, and the success of any new services or changes to service delivery.
Finally, it is important to stress the benefit of rigorous, evidence-based testing and evaluation of new and existing legal service initiatives. A quality approach to legal service provision requires evaluation of the outcomes achieved as well as systematic investigation of how to achieve the most effective outcomes. For example, the present report has highlighted the potential benefit of targeted legal education and information strategies. Having identified this need, communication effectiveness studies could be used to indicate the best mechanism for specific education and information strategies to reach the target audience, and evaluation studies could be used to confirm the success of such strategies in effectively reaching their audience.
The present report also highlighted the potential benefit of various changes to the provision of legal information, advice and assistance. Suggested changes include using non-legal professionals as more formal gateways to legal services, and improving the coordination among legal services and between legal and human services. The usefulness of evaluating the efficiency, effectiveness and long-term cost-benefit of any such changes to legal services cannot be overemphasised. Such evaluation is critical in informing the ongoing improvement of legal service provision.