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Research Report: Justice made to measure: NSW legal needs survey in disadvantaged areas
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Justice made to measure: NSW legal needs survey in disadvantaged areas  ( 2006 )  Cite this report

Ch 9. Discussion



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Response to legal events


Type of response

The present study found that a common response to legal events was to do nothing—respondents reported taking no action in response to about one-third of the legal events they experienced. They reported seeking some sort of help, advice or information for just over half of the events they experienced, and they attempted to handle the remaining 16 per cent of events on their own. Past research consistently shows that a considerable proportion of respondents do not seek advice from legal sources for their legal problems (e.g. ABA 1994; Cass & Sackville 1975; Dale 2000; Fishwick 1992; Rush 1999; Spangenberg Group 1989; Task Force 2003).

However, the percentage who took no action at all in the present study was considerably higher than the corresponding figures of 3 to 19 per cent reported in the recent studies in the United Kingdom (Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001; Pleasence et al. 2004b). The difference is likely to be due in part to the fact that the United Kingdom studies only examined responses to events that were deemed by respondents to be non-trivial, that is, ‘important enough to warrant action’. However, even when only non-trivial legal events are considered in the present study, the percentage of events where no action was taken is still relatively high at 26 per cent.28

The higher rate of inaction in the present study might also reflect the possibility that people from disadvantaged areas are less likely than others to respond to the legal problems they experience. The present study surveyed residents of disadvantaged areas whereas the United Kingdom studies surveyed the general population. Consistent with this argument, Pleasence et al. (2004b) found a higher rate of inaction among their sample of temporary accommodation residents than among their general sample (28% versus 19%).

Among those who took no action in response to non-trivial events in the present study, the most common reason given for not taking action was that it would make no difference or would make things worse.29 This finding is very similar to that of the Task Force (2003) and Pleasence et al. (2004b) who both found that the most common reason provided for inaction was that nothing could be done.

The present high rate of inaction in response to legal events and the common accompanying belief that taking action would make no difference suggest that there is clearly a role for improved education and information about legal rights and legal remedies in the disadvantaged communities surveyed. Genn (1999), Genn and Paterson (2001), and Pleasence et al. (2004b) similarly advocate the need to raise levels of awareness and understanding about legal rights, obligations and remedies.

Factors related to response to legal events

Not surprisingly, the present study found that the type of legal event was a significant predictor of whether or not people sought help. Past research also suggests that problem type is important in determining whether or not people seek advice (ABA 1994; Cass & Sackville 1975; Curran 1977; Genn 1999; Fishwick 1992; Pleasence et al. 2004b; Schulman et al. 2003; Task Force 2003). Furthermore, Pleasence et al. (2004b) found that the likelihood of seeking advice increased with the seriousness of the problem faced—respondents were more likely to describe problems for which they sought advice as being ‘very important to sort out’.

In the present study, respondents were more likely to seek help for accident/injury, employment and wills/estates events than other events on average, and less likely to seek help for consumer and human rights events. In keeping with the present study, some past studies have found that accidents (ABA 1994; Cass & Sackville 1975; Genn 1999) and matters related to wills, advance directives and estate planning (ABA 1994; Curran 1977; Fishwick 1992; Schulman et al. 2003; Task Force 2003) are relatively likely to result in seeking legal advice. Although these legal issues are not necessarily serious or long-lasting problems, it has been suggested they are probably recognised by the public as areas that are traditionally addressed by lawyers in private practice (Cass & Sackville 1975).

Although family and domestic violence issues have reliably been reported in past research as legal problems that are relatively likely to result in seeking advice (e.g. ABA 1994; Cass & Sackville 1975; Curran 1977; Genn 1999; Pleasence et al. 2004b; Schulman et al. 2003; Task Force 2003), the present findings did not replicate these results.

Present findings that the type of legal issue influences the action taken, coupled with past findings that people tend to seek advice for more serious problems, are heartening because they suggest that the decision to seek advice is not completely haphazard, but tends to be measured against the nature, perceived importance and likely impact of the legal problem. However, given that the present survey did not measure the perceived seriousness of legal events, it is possible that respondents to the present study sometimes failed to seek help for serious problems.

The present results also showed that various sociodemographic characteristics of individuals were associated with their response to legal events. The youngest and oldest respondents, Indigenous Australians and people with low levels of education tended to be less likely to seek help than other people. Again there is some overlap with prior research. For example, Fishwick (1992) reported that young people were less likely to seek help. Genn (1999) found that 18 to 34 year olds were less likely than others to obtain advice, while 45 to 64 year olds were more likely than others to obtain advice. Pleasence et al. (2004b) reported that black and minority ethnic respondents were less likely than white respondents to take action. The Task Force (2003) found that Native Americans were amongst the demographic groups least likely to seek attorney assistance. Genn (1999) found that people with no academic qualifications were less likely to obtain advice. However, Pleasence et al. (2004b) reported that people with no academic qualifications were more likely than others to seek advice when they acted.

The present results suggest that when young people, older people, Indigenous Australians and persons with low levels of education experience legal problems, these problems have a greater chance of escalating into serious problems or triggering related problems. Thus, in addition to raising the general public’s awareness and knowledge about legal rights and remedies, it may be useful to further target legal education and information strategies towards these groups of individuals who tend to be less likely to seek help.

It is also worth noting that although some past studies have found a relationship between economic circumstances and the likelihood of seeking assistance (e.g. Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001; Pleasence et al. 2004b), income was not significant in the present regression analysis for seeking help. However, the relationship between economic indicators and seeking assistance in past studies has not always been straightforward or in the same direction. Genn (1999) found that high-income earners were relatively more likely to obtain advice, whereas Genn and Paterson (2001) found middle-income respondents (£8000–£14 999) were more likely to seek advice than both those on lower incomes and those on higher incomes. Pleasence et al. (2004b) found the relationship between economic circumstances and inaction was complicated. Those in work were less likely than others to act, but those who owned their own home were more likely than others to act. In addition, respondents in low-income occupations were particularly unlikely to take action.

Type of legal advice and assistance

In line with recent overseas research (Genn 1999; Maxwell et al. 1999; Pleasence et al. 2004b), the present findings indicate that individuals who do seek help in response to legal problems by no means limit themselves to traditional legal sources of advice, but use a wide range of legal and non-legal advisers. In the present study, traditional legal advisers, such as private solicitors and barristers, local courts, Legal Aid NSW, LawAccess NSW, Aboriginal legal services and CLCs, were only used in 12 per cent of cases where help was sought. Even when less formal legal advisers such as friends or relatives who are lawyers and published sources are included, legal advisers were used in only one-quarter of cases where help was sought. Thus, when people did seek advice in response to events that had legal implications, in the majority of cases, they only used non-legal advisers. The most common non-legal advisers were professionals such as doctors, accountants, psychologists and counsellors (25%). The next most frequently used non-legal advisers were friends or relatives who are not lawyers (16%), government organisations (15%), trade unions or professional bodies (6%), insurance companies/brokers (6%), school staff (6%) and the police (5%). The use of non-legally trained friends and family for advice in response to legal issues is also a common finding of previous studies (e.g. Genn 1999; LJF 2003; Maxwell et al. 1999; Pleasence et al. 2004b; Scott et al. 2004).

Furthermore, the present results also indicated that the type of help obtained in response to issues that have legal implications is not always of a legal nature. Participants reported seeking only non-legal types of help, such as medical advice or assistance, in relation to at least one-quarter of the legal events where they sought help. This finding highlights the fact that in some instances where help was sought for events with legal consequences, participants prioritised non-legal help over legal help and did not address any legal needs raised by these events.

However, the present findings also suggested that, even when non-legal advisers are used, by and large, people’s choice of adviser generally appears to be appropriate to the type of event experienced. For example, school staff were commonly approached for education events, medical/health professionals for health and accident/injury events, government organisations for government events, trade unions for employment events, private lawyers for wills/estates events and the police for general crime events.

Thus, in line with recent findings in other jurisdictions, the present study suggests the limited use of traditional legal advisers and the even rarer use of formal legal proceedings to resolve legal issues. As Genn (1999) notes, there is little evidence of any ‘rush’ to law.

The widespread use of advisers outside the traditional legal sphere also indicates that the conventional definition of legal services, which is restricted to legal information, advice, assistance and representation obtained from a lawyer, only covers a fraction of people’s advice-seeking behaviour in response to issues that have legal consequences. Therefore, a comprehensive view of legal services must extend beyond traditional legal services to include all individuals and organisations to whom people routinely turn to for advice in response to legal issues (Pleasence et al. 2004b). In particular, it is important to recognise that non-legal professionals may be the first, and in many cases, the only point of contact with professionals for people in legal need.

The widespread use of advisers outside the traditional legal sphere also suggests that information and education about resolution of legal issues should stress the many methods that can be used for resolution and that traditional legal process tends to be a rare and last resort (Pleasence et al. 2004b).

Barriers to legal advice and assistance

Past studies have identified a number of different types of barriers to obtaining legal advice, including barriers to accessibility, financial barriers, language barriers and psychological barriers (ABA 1994; Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001; LJF 2003; MacDonald 2005; Maxwell et al. 1999; Pleasence et al. 2004b). In the present study, almost two-fifths of those who sought help for a legal issue reported some type of barrier to obtaining that help. The most frequent types of barriers identified in obtaining advice from all sources were difficulty getting through on the telephone (18%), delays in getting a response (17%), difficulty getting an appointment (11%), the lack of local or easily accessible services (8%) and problems with opening hours (8%). Similar barriers were identified by respondents who only used traditional legal advisers, suggesting that there is room for improvement in the delivery of legal services. The present study also found that the distance respondents travelled to access services was sometimes considerable in the rural/remote regions surveyed (Nambucca and Walgett). One-quarter of respondents residing in these regions reported that they travelled over 20 kilometres to seek help in response to legal events.

These findings suggest that there is considerable scope to improve the accessibility of legal services. Difficulty in getting through on the telephone and making an appointment suggest that the existing services may require increased resources in order to respond efficiently to the current demand. Difficulty in finding local services and problems with opening hours suggest that extensions to current service provision may be warranted, both in terms of operating hours and in terms of the number of readily accessible physical locations where legal advice is available. In short, as has been suggested elsewhere, there may be benefit in legal advice services mirroring the behaviour of those who wish to use them, and being available when and where people wish to seek legal advice (Pleasence et al. 2004b).

Although some past studies have found that financial factors were common barriers to obtaining legal advice (e.g. ABA 1994; Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001), these did not emerge as frequently reported barriers in the current study. In the present study, financial barriers were identified in 6 per cent of cases across all types of advisers, including both legal and non-legal advisers. Pleasence et al. (2004b) similarly found that cost was reported as a reason for inaction in only a small percentage (4%) of cases. It is not surprising that cost was not an issue for many of the present respondents given that the majority of present respondents sought help from friends, relatives, and non-legal professionals and organisations, who do not usually charge legal fees. In addition, only a small percentage of the present legal events involved legal resolution through court or tribunal proceedings, where the cost of legal representation can be substantial. It is worth noting, however, that financial barriers in the present study were reported slightly more frequently (in 10% of cases) when only traditional legal advisers were used, suggesting that the issue of cost needs to be addressed for some people in some cases.

Not understanding the advice provided (5%) and English language problems (2%) were also not common barriers in the present study. Thus, although ensuring that legal advice and information are framed in the clearest possible language is necessarily an important goal in any legal service provision, the present results do not suggest that a major overhaul in the quality of written and oral communication is necessary. However, it is important to note here that the present sample was not representative of all disadvantaged populations in NSW, and hence, that English language problems may still be significant obstacles to accessing justice for some groups of disadvantaged populations in NSW. Although interviews in the present study were offered in three languages other than English, they were not offered in all non-English languages, and there may well have been a bias toward inclusion in the sample of people with a good command of English. Furthermore, in the Fairfield LGA, which was chosen partly because of its cultural and linguistic diversity, the proportion in the sample who were from a non-English speaking background appears to be somewhat lower than that in the population.30

Although psychological factors have been reported as important barriers in some studies (e.g. Maxwell et al. 1999), psychological barriers such as feeling embarrassed were identified in only 2 per cent of cases in the present sample. Again, however, given the limited representativeness of the present sample, the possibility that psychological barriers may be significant obstacles to accessing justice for some groups of disadvantaged populations in NSW cannot be ruled out. People who tend to be easily embarrassed about legal problems may have been relatively unlikely to agree to being interviewed about their legal problems.

The present study also assessed whether respondents required special services in order to obtain help for their legal issues. Such services were only required in 5 per cent of cases where respondents sought help, and they obtained these services in the majority of cases (71%). The special services that participants reported requiring included medical or counselling help or assistance, home visits or special transport, financial help or assistance, help reading or understanding complex information, wheelchair access, an interpreter, a place for children to play and access to an outreach service. These findings suggest that, while there is always room for improvement, the respondents’ needs with respect to such special services were generally met.

Thus, the present findings suggest that the main barriers in terms of seeking help for legal events in the surveyed areas relate to the easy access of services, and that improvements to the efficiency, resourcing and extended availability of services are likely to be beneficial.



In the present study, no action was taken in response to 958 of the 2921 legal events examined. For 253 of the 958 events where respondents took no action, the most important reason provided for not seeking help was that the problem was not serious enough or the respondent did not realise the seriousness of the problem. If these 253 trivial events are excluded, no action was taken in response to 26% of events (i.e. 705/2668 events). Note, however, that in the present study respondents were not explicitly asked to rate the seriousness of the problems they experienced.
Excluding the 253 events that were perceived as not serious enough or too trivial to take action, there were 705 other events where participants did nothing. The most common most important reason for inaction provided for 230 of these 705 events (33%) was that taking action would make no difference or make things worse.
According to census data (ABS 2002a), 71% of households in Fairfield speak a language other than English, with 16% speaking Vietnamese, 10% speaking Chinese languages and 5% speaking Spanish. However, the percentage of the sample born in a country other than Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the USA was 46%, with 11% born in Vietnam, 4% born in mainland China or Hong Kong, and 3% born in a Spanish-speaking country (i.e. Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Peru, Spain and Uruguay). In addition, the percentages of the Fairfield sample who were interviewed in Vietnamese, Cantonese and Spanish were 3%, 5% and under 1%, respectively.

28  In the present study, no action was taken in response to 958 of the 2921 legal events examined. For 253 of the 958 events where respondents took no action, the most important reason provided for not seeking help was that the problem was not serious enough or the respondent did not realise the seriousness of the problem. If these 253 trivial events are excluded, no action was taken in response to 26% of events (i.e. 705/2668 events). Note, however, that in the present study respondents were not explicitly asked to rate the seriousness of the problems they experienced.
29  Excluding the 253 events that were perceived as not serious enough or too trivial to take action, there were 705 other events where participants did nothing. The most common most important reason for inaction provided for 230 of these 705 events (33%) was that taking action would make no difference or make things worse.
30  According to census data (ABS 2002a), 71% of households in Fairfield speak a language other than English, with 16% speaking Vietnamese, 10% speaking Chinese languages and 5% speaking Spanish. However, the percentage of the sample born in a country other than Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the USA was 46%, with 11% born in Vietnam, 4% born in mainland China or Hong Kong, and 3% born in a Spanish-speaking country (i.e. Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Peru, Spain and Uruguay). In addition, the percentages of the Fairfield sample who were interviewed in Vietnamese, Cantonese and Spanish were 3%, 5% and under 1%, respectively.


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Coumarelos, C, Wei , Z & Zhou, AH 2006, Justice made to measure: NSW legal needs survey in disadvantaged areas, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney