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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 10. Towards improving access to justice: a multidimensional approach

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Tailoring legal services for specific sociodemographic groups

Particular sociodemographic groups appear to be especially vulnerable to certain types of legal problems, less likely to seek legal advice or less able to resolve legal problems. These findings suggest that particular attention should be devoted to ensuring that legal information, advice and assistance services are tailored to meet the particular needs of different sociodemographic groups.


The present results show that different types of legal problems predominate at certain ages. Specifically:

  • general crime and accident/injury events peaked in the 15 to 24 year age group
  • credit/debt, government and housing events peaked in the 25 to 34 year age group
  • family events peaked in the 35 to 44 year age group
  • wills/estates and employment events peaked in the 45 to 54 year age group
  • people aged 65 years or over tended to report lower rates of most types of legal events.

These results suggest that there may be some benefit in ensuring that legal education and information strategies, as well as legal service provision, are mindful of the different types of legal problems that tend to be faced by people of different ages. The implications for legal information strategies are that information on particular legal matters could be targeted to the age group most likely to experience those issues, could be communicated in a form appropriate for that age group, and could be disseminated via pathways easily accessible for that age group. For example, given that general crime and accident/injury issues peak in young adulthood, one possible pathway for providing specific legal information on these issues may be through high schools. Furthermore, if legal information is distributed through non-legal professionals and services that engage the public at specific points in their lives, such as health and welfare professionals, community health clinics, social service agencies and other government agencies (MacDonald 2005; Pleasence et al. 2004b), there may be benefit in this information focusing on the legal problems that are common at those life stages. For example, if a legal education dimension were added to pre-natal classes as suggested by MacDonald (2003),2 then this would be an appropriate opportunity to focus on the legal issues that predominate for parents of young families (e.g. family, credit/debt, government and housing issues).

Similarly, legal advice and assistance provision could also be tailored to the needs of different age groups. For example, regions of NSW with relatively large youth or older populations may benefit from having specialist legal services to meet the particular legal needs of these populations (e.g. Ellison et al. 2004), whether these are separate agencies or specialised arms within more generalist legal services. In the case of older people, a recent qualitative research study suggested the benefit of a specialist legal service to address the particular legal needs faced by older people, and to provide legal resolution via pathways that are preferred by older people and that overcome the specific barriers to accessing justice faced by older people (Ellison et al. 2004).

The present study also showed that the youngest and the oldest age groups tended to seek help for their legal issues relatively less often than some other age groups. As a result, legal education and information strategies specifically targeted to each of these age groups may be useful in encouraging and empowering these groups to seek help to resolve their legal problems.

The present finding that resolution rates tended to decrease with increasing age also suggests that people may require greater levels of support and involvement from advisers in order to resolve their problems as they get older.


The present study found that, of all the sociodemographic groups examined, people with a chronic illness or disability stood out as being particularly vulnerable to a wide range of civil, criminal and family legal problems. In addition to being especially vulnerable to experiencing legal events, this group was also found to have a reduced capacity to resolve the legal problems they face. Thus, the present study suggests that meeting the legal needs of people with a chronic illness or disability should be a top priority.

People with chronic ill-health have been identified as a group suffering multiple disadvantage (ABS 2004c), and some authors have argued that people with a disability are the ‘most socially excluded’ of disadvantaged groups (e.g. Howard 1999, cited in Pleasence et al. 2004b). The present results suggest that people with a chronic illness or disability are definitely a group with a high level of legal need and indicate the importance of ensuring that legal services are targeted to meet the needs of this group. The vulnerability of this group to many types of legal problems suggests that this group may benefit from education and information about a wide range of legal issues, and that specialised legal advice and assistance services for this group may be warranted.

Interestingly, as noted earlier, the reduced capacity of people with a chronic illness or disability to resolve legal issues was not due to them being less willing to seek advice for their legal needs, but may reflect the added complexity posed by their illness or disability when faced with legal issues, or the difficulty in dealing with multiple legal needs. A worthwhile question for future research is to examine in more detail the particular barriers experienced by people with a chronic illness or disability in resolving legal issues, and the points within the legal resolution process where these barriers are experienced. For example, barriers may be experienced at the point of obtaining legal advice or at the point of attempting to implement that advice, or both. Thus, people with a chronic illness or disability may benefit from information strategies that would help them make optimal choices in terms of where or how they seek legal advice.

The finding that people with a chronic illness or disability have reduced capacity for resolving their legal issues suggests that these people may require some sort of additional assistance or support in order to resolve their legal problems effectively. Furthermore, given their health needs, it is quite possible that they have multiple, complex legal and non-legal problems and would benefit from a coordinated response from legal services and broader non-legal support and advocacy services in order to effectively act on legal advice. Providing a more coordinated response from legal and non-legal services to meet the needs of people with multiple legal and non-legal problems is discussed further in the section Coordinating service provision and managing demand, below.

Indigenous Australians

In keeping with national statistics suggesting that Indigenous Australians tend to suffer economic and social disadvantage (ABS 2004c, 2004d; ABS & AIHW 2005), the present study found Indigenous Australians to be particularly vulnerable to credit/debt, employment and family problems. Indigenous Australians were also less likely to prepare or alter wills. As already noted, their vulnerability to experiencing employment and family problems is of particular concern given that such problems tend to be longer lasting, more difficult to resolve and likely to trigger further problems (Genn 1999; Pleasence et al. 2004b).

Also of concern was the finding that Indigenous Australians were relatively less likely to seek advice to resolve their legal issues, given that ignoring legal problems was shown to reduce the likelihood of resolution. The reasons behind the increased tendency of Indigenous Australians to take no action in response to legal issues were not specifically explored in the present study and warrant future investigation. However, one possibility is that cultural factors may contribute to a greater reluctance on the part of Indigenous Australians to actively resolve issues. For example, Schetzer and Henderson (2003) reported that some of the barriers to Indigenous people obtaining legal advice and effectively participating in the legal system include Indigenous people distrusting the legal system, disliking the formality of the legal system and court processes, feeling intimidated when approaching legal services, perceiving a lack of cultural awareness, sensitivity and compassion among legal service providers, and perceiving bias or discrimination against Indigenous people in some legal processes. Another possible reason for the increased tendency of Indigenous Australians to take no action is that the multiple disadvantage they experience may compromise their ability to deal with their legal problems.

The current empirical results support the widely held view that meeting the legal needs of Indigenous Australians should be a priority (e.g. Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit 2005; Schetzer & Henderson 2003). Policy makers and legal service providers need to determine how best to ensure that legal services reach this group, and how to overcome any barriers to Indigenous people accessing legal services. The present results provide a number of guides about improving access to justice for Indigenous Australians. Firstly, the present findings suggest that legal service providers who specialise in dealing with Indigenous clients are likely to require expertise in, or appropriate contact referrals for, the areas of the law related to credit/debt, employment and family matters.

Secondly, given Indigenous people’s increased tendency to take no action to resolve their legal needs, specialised legal information strategies targeted specifically for Indigenous people may prove a useful tool in helping to mobilise Indigenous people to seek legal advice when they experience a legal problem. Such information strategies may be useful, for instance, in encouraging Indigenous Australians to have up-to-date wills.

In addition, past findings suggest that both specialist legal services for Indigenous people, and more generalist legal service agencies whose clients include Indigenous people, need to be culturally appropriate and sensitive in order to encourage Indigenous people to access their service (Schetzer & Henderson 2003). For example, it has been argued that services could be

    made more culturally appropriate through the employment of Indigenous staff, cross-cultural education and wider availability of interpreters [and] consideration of new services and interventions tailored specifically for Indigenous families … needs to be ongoing (Schetzer & Henderson 2003, p. 271).

The multiple disadvantage suffered by Indigenous people may also suggest that Indigenous people sometimes require broad non-legal advocacy and support in order to deal effectively with their legal problems.

Other sociodemographic groups

The present results also have implications for tailoring legal services to meet the specific legal needs of other sociodemographic groups, such as people with low levels of education, people with low incomes and people born in a non-English speaking country.

Firstly, it has already been noted that young people, older people and Indigenous Australians were found to be relatively unlikely to seek help for their legal problems and it was argued that legal education and information strategies specifically tailored to each of these demographic groups may be useful in encouraging them to actively address their legal problems. Another group who were relatively less likely to seek help were people with low levels of education. Thus, legal education or information strategies targeting this demographic group may also be particularly useful in empowering this group to take action to resolve their legal issues.

Secondly, the present low reporting rates of legal events among older people, people born in a non-English speaking country, people on low incomes and people with low levels of education may also have implications for legal education and information strategies. In some instances, low reporting rates of legal issues reflect a failure to recognise legal issues or a reluctance to complain about them. While the reasons behind these lower reporting rates were outside the scope of the present study and warrant future investigation, some past studies have reported low levels of legal knowledge among older people, low-income groups and some culturally and linguistically diverse populations (e.g. Australian Law Reform Commission 1992; Cass & Sackville 1975; Ellison et al. 2004; Rush 1999; Tilse et al. 2002; Urbis Keys Young 2002; Women’s Legal Resources Centre 1994; Worthington et al. 2001). To the extent that these lower reporting rates reflect a lack of knowledge about legal matters, then legal information strategies which assist these groups to identify and deal effectively with legal problems may be beneficial.

Cited in Pleasence et al. (2004b).

 Cited in Pleasence et al. (2004b).

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