Justice made to measure: NSW legal needs survey in disadvantaged areas ( 2006 ) Cite this report
Ch 9. Discussion
However, a higher rate of satisfaction was reported for events that had been resolved. The present study found that participants reported being satisfied with the outcome of almost four-fifths of the events that had been resolved.
Similar or lower rates of satisfactory outcomes have been reported by respondents to a number of previous surveys. It is worth noting, however, that strict comparisons across studies are problematic because of differences between studies in the measurement of satisfaction and other outcomes. Genn (1999) reported that 41 per cent of participants had completely achieved their main objective, while Pleasence et al. (2004b) reported almost three-quarters of respondents who took action secured at least some of their objectives. The ABA (1994) study in the United States found that satisfaction with the outcome of legal issues was reported by 54 per cent of moderate-income households, but only 38 per cent of low-income households. The LJF (2003) pilot study examined satisfaction across both resolved and unresolved legal events and reported that 56 per cent were satisfied with the status of their legal events.
The relatively high rate of satisfaction with the outcome of resolved events in the present study is heartening. The importance of people being satisfied with the outcome of their legal issues cannot be overstated. Such satisfaction indicates a vote of public approval for the existing avenues for resolving legal issues and accessing justice. Satisfaction with outcomes is also important as a likely incentive to taking steps to resolve legal issues that arise in the future. As already discussed, approximately one-quarter of those who ignored their legal problems thought that seeking help would either make no difference or would make things worse. Although the reason behind this belief was not explored in the present study, it is possible that previous dissatisfaction with the outcome of legal issues negatively impacts on the motivation to resolve new legal issues. As already noted, taking action significantly increases the likelihood that legal issues are resolved quickly.
The present respondents who were dissatisfied with the outcome of their resolved events stated that their dissatisfaction was due to the negative financial impact of the event (21%), the result being unfair or unsatisfactory (20%), a lack of helpful assistance (15%), their objective not being achieved (8%) and the matter being too expensive to resolve (7%).
The findings that dissatisfaction with outcome was sometimes reported as being due to poor services or advice, or to protracted resolution suggests that there may be room for improvement in the quality and efficiency of current service delivery. While the percentage of respondents who were dissatisfied due to the cost of legal resolution was not large (7%), it nonetheless suggests that cost is a barrier to legal resolution for some people.
The considerable percentage of dissatisfied people who perceived the result as unfair or unsatisfactory raises the question of the extent to which people’s expectations about the ease of attaining the desired outcome are realistic. It has been noted in the psychosocial literature that satisfaction is a complex response which is influenced by more than simply whether an individual’s needs have been fulfilled. Satisfaction is also shaped by whether the individual has appropriate expectations about quality and fairness, and by the extent to which these expectations are confirmed (Oliver 1997).
If some of the present respondents had unrealistic expectations about potential outcomes, the provision of appropriate information about likely outcomes could be used to help individuals to more readily accept eventual outcomes (Genn 1999). For example, appropriate information about realistic outcomes can be provided by legal advisers, or via the dissemination of legal resource materials (e.g. websites, printed materials) or other legal information strategies. In fact, there is some evidence that clients value clear communications from their legal practitioners about the outcomes they should expect, suggesting the crucial impact of the effective management of client expectations (Armytage 1996). On the other hand, if expectations about achieving a fair outcome were realistic among the present respondents, then improvement in the quality of legal services and in their ability to achieve fair outcomes may be more appropriate.
Factors related to satisfaction with the outcome of legal events
The type of legal event experienced was a significant factor in whether respondents were satisfied with the outcome of legal events that had been resolved by the end of the reference period, again indicating the benefit of legal services being able to deal effectively with different types of problems. Respondents were more likely to be satisfied with the outcome of accident/injury and wills/estates events than other events, and less likely to be satisfied with the outcome of business, consumer, government and general crime events. Past studies have similarly found that problem type is an important factor in satisfaction with outcome and in achieving one’s main objectives, but the problem types associated with higher levels of satisfaction are not always apparently similar (ABA 1994; Genn 1999; Genn & Paterson 2001; LJF 2003).38
However, a relatively high level of satisfaction with the outcome of wills/estates events has been found in a few studies (ABA 1994; LJF 2003). The high satisfaction with wills/estates events in the present study is not surprising given that the majority of these events simply involved making or altering a will rather than a problem of some sort or a dispute between two parties.39 In contrast, business, consumer, government and general crime events were dominated by events that represented disputes, problems, disagreements or challenges, which by definition, involve the participant’s interests competing with another party’s interests. Clearly, achieving a satisfactory outcome for any one party will tend to be more difficult whenever there are competing interests. While this observation would be obvious to many practitioners, it highlights, once again, the importance of ensuring that individuals have realistic expectations about the likely outcomes of their legal issues.
The present study also found that people who sought help were more likely to be satisfied with the outcome than people who did nothing, but less likely to be satisfied with the outcome than people who handled the matter alone. The finding that seeking help results in greater satisfaction with the outcome than doing nothing is not surprising and in keeping with past findings. The ABA (1994) found that those who turned to a lawyer or some other part of the justice system were more likely to be satisfied than those who took no action. The Task Force (2003) similarly found that low-income respondents were more likely to be satisfied with the outcomes if they used attorney assistance than if they did not.
The finding that people who handled the matter themselves were more likely to be satisfied with the outcome than those who sought help was also reported by the LJF (2003) pilot study. This finding is also similar to the finding reported above that dealing with the matter oneself results in increased likelihood of resolution. Again, greater levels of satisfaction when dealing with the matter oneself may reflect that people seek advice for more serious or intractable legal problems that are more difficult to resolve in a satisfactory way for the individual concerned. Other factors that might contribute to higher reported satisfaction when handling legal issues alone include being less likely to blame oneself for negative outcomes and developing more realistic expectations about likely outcomes through greater first-hand familiarity with the issue.
The lower reported satisfaction with outcome when help was sought rather than when individuals handled the matter alone may also suggest a mismatch between people’s needs or expectations when seeking legal help and the services currently available for legal resolution. Such a mismatch could lie not only in the perceived quality or fairness of the outcomes, but also in the efficiency of the resolution, or in the methods or pathways currently available for legal service provision.
In terms of the currently available pathways for legal resolution, there has been considerable debate in recent years about various alternatives to traditional legal service delivery, including the possible value of ‘unbundling’ legal service provision (American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services (ABA SCDLS) 2002; Giddings & Robertson 2003a, 2003b; MacDermott 2003; Mosten 2000; Shirvington 2003). ‘Unbundling’ refers to breaking up legal service provision for a client into discrete legal tasks. Rather than providing the client with legal assistance for the entire package of tasks, the client is encouraged to choose the tasks for which they require legal assistance and to use self-help type strategies (e.g. do-it-yourself kits, self-help groups) for others of these tasks. There has been a trend in recent years towards legal consumers playing a larger part than ever before in their own legal service delivery (Giddings & Robertson 2003b). However, some authors have expressed ethical concerns with unbundling, and it is clear that self-help in any form simply cannot be a quality substitute for legal assistance for all legal tasks and for all people (ABA SCDLS 2002; Giddings & Robertson 2003b; MacDermott 2003; Shirvington 2003).
While determining the best pathways for legal service delivery is a matter for ongoing research and improvement, the high level of satisfaction with the outcomes of legal issues that individuals handled themselves in the present study suggests that, where appropriate and effective, unbundling legal service provision and promoting self-help strategies may be greeted favourably by some legal consumers. However, the legal tasks particularly suited to self-help strategies or unbundling, and the individuals or sociodemographic groups who would be particularly likely to benefit from self-help or unbundled services, are questions for future research. Giddings and Robertson (2003b) suggest that non-routine legal work involving the exercise of substantial discretions is unsuited to self-help. They also suggest that self-help or unbundled services are only suited to articulate, middle-class people and are likely to be a poor substitute for the services of experts in the case of disadvantaged people. This view is consistent with the notion that people with poor literacy, language or communication skills, and those with complex or serious problems, may require high levels of assistance and support in order to solve their legal problems (Genn 1999).
Some past studies have found that various sociodemographic characteristics, such as gender, age, ethnicity, social class, education, employment and income, were related to satisfaction with the outcome of legal problems, the perceived fairness of the outcome or the achievement of one’s objectives (e.g. Genn 1999; LJF 2003). None of the sociodemographic factors examined in the present study were significant predictors of satisfaction with outcome.
The present study found that participants who reported being satisfied with the outcome of their resolved events also tended to report being satisfied with the help, advice or information they received for those events. This result is not surprising and has been noted previously (e.g. Armytage 1996). Nonetheless, it highlights the inherent difficulty of interpreting consumers’ assessments of the adequacy of legal services without taking into account the perceived adequacy of the outcomes of the events for which legal services were used. While dissatisfaction with the legal advice or assistance received may reflect that inadequate service provision led to poor outcomes, it may also reflect the possibility that people are more likely to negatively evaluate appropriate legal service provision when they are unhappy with the outcomes. For example, two people who receive the same legal assistance may form diametrically opposed views of its adequacy depending on whether or not their objectives were achieved. Similar confounding has been reported in the health setting where satisfaction with the quality of care is affected by health status (Al-Mandhari, Hassan & Haran 2004). Although it is not entirely unreasonable to judge the adequacy of service delivery by the outcome it achieves, any such tendency again highlights the importance of individuals having realistic expectations about the likely outcomes of their legal issues. Negative assessments of legal service delivery based on inappropriate expectations about winning or achieving certain objectives presents a challenge for policy makers because such assessments may obscure the best methods of resolving legal issues.