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

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The objects of the Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales (the Foundation) are to contribute to the development of a fair and equitable justice system which addresses the legal needs of the community, and to improve access to justice by the community (in particular, by economically and socially disadvantaged people).1

In 2002 the Foundation commenced the Access to Justice and Legal Needs (A2JLN) research program. The main purpose of the program is to provide a rigorous and sustained assessment of the legal and access to justice needs of the community, especially disadvantaged people, which will assist government, community and other organisations to develop policy and plan service delivery. The research is a challenging program involving an interconnected set of projects employing a range of qualitative and quantitative methodologies.

A highlight of the program has been the conduct of a legal needs survey in six regions across NSW. The regions were selected to enable the research to examine rural and regional as well as urban communities. All regions chosen had low ratings on ABS socioeconomic indicators. This survey is the most comprehensive quantitative investigation of legal needs conducted in Australia for at least 30 years. It parallels similar quantitative work undertaken in recent years overseas, especially in the United Kingdom. An overview of the international work is contained in the introductory section of this report.

Apart from the comprehensiveness of the research, the results of this survey are particularly important as it examined a wide range of legal needs, including those which have not been expressed through the demand for legal services. As a result of this research, we now have a more informed perspective on questions such as:

  • what types of issues are least likely to be resolved?
  • which demographic groups are less successful in resolving their legal issues?
  • what are the barriers people face to resolving their legal problems?
  • what pathways do people seem to follow when grappling with a legal problem?

The results of this research will provide much information for policy makers, service providers, researchers and the community generally. As often is the case with empirical research, the results do not always conform to what we may anecdotally expect. And the research has, as usual, raised some important questions for further investigation. The Foundation hopes that many of these questions will be addressed in future components of our research program, and by other researchers directing their attention to the important issues associated with improving access to justice, especially for disadvantaged people. To that end, the Foundation is keen to receive comment and other feedback in relation to this and other reports to inform our future research activities.

The value of this research is further enhanced when it is appreciated within the context of the broader A2JLN research program conducted by the Foundation. As one of the main methodological streams within the overall research program, the results in this survey complement:

  • quantitative data and analysis concerning expressed legal need obtained from the legal service providers themselves and published in the Data Digest (2004) and subsequent editions of the Digest (to be published online)
  • the series of qualitative studies of the particular access to justice and legal needs of selected disadvantaged groups, including older people, homeless people, people with a mental illness and prisoners.

Therefore, while the report 'stands on its own', it is also important to consider it in the context of the following reports:
  • Stage 1: Public Consultations (August 2003)
  • Stage 2: Quantitative Legal Needs Survey, Bega Valley (Pilot) (November 2003)
  • Data Digest (February 2004)
  • The Legal Needs of Older People in NSW (December 2004)
  • No Home, No Justice? The Legal Needs of Homeless People in NSW (July 2005)
  • The Legal Needs of People with a Mental Illness (to be published May/June 2006).

Geoff Mulherin
Law and Justice Foundation of NSW
March 2006

Law and Justice Foundation Act 2000 (NSW), s. 5(1).

 Law and Justice Foundation Act 2000 (NSW), s. 5(1).

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