What Do Legal Consumers Really Need?

A new study into legal needs has recently been released (hat tip to Richard Zorza for his blog post on the report.) Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study (conducted by the American Bar Foundation and Rebecca Sandefur) was released August 8 at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in Boston.

The research findings include:

  • 66% of those surveyed reported experiencing one or more civil justice situations involving money, debt, rented and owned housing, insurance, employment, government benefits, children’s education, clinical negligence, personal injury, and relationship breakdown and its aftermath in the 18 months prior to the survey.
  • The situations people reported most commonly involved their livelihood and financial stability.
  • Poor people were significantly more likely to report civil justice situations than people in high or middle income households. African Americans and Hispanics were more likely to report civil justice situations than were white/non-Hispanic people.
  • People attribute a wide range of negative impacts to their civil justice situations, including verbal and physical violence, lost confidence, loss of income, and negative impacts on physical or mental health.
  • The most common ways in which people report handling civil justice situations is: 1. by taking some action on their own without any assistance from a third party; 2. turning to their immediate social network, including family or friends; and 3. with the assistance of a third party who was not a member of the person’s social network.
  • People reported that they did nothing about 16% of the civil justice situations they experienced.
  • People don’t seek help from an adviser outside their own social network because:
    • 46% did not see the need: either the problem had resolved or they expected it to resolve without getting advice, or they simply felt that they did not need advice;
    • 24% believed that it would make no difference;
    • 17% had concerns about the cost of seeking outside advice; and
    • 9% did not know where to go or how to do so.
  • Those surveyed typically did not think of their civil justice situations as legal issues. They characterized only 9% of their civil justice situations as legal and 4% as criminal issues. Much more commonly, they described these situations “bad luck/ part of life” or as “part of God’s plan.”

The report concludes:

While civil justice situations are frequent in the lives of Americans, turning to the legal system to handle them is not. The most common type of civil justice experiences are in fact those that do not involve contact with lawyers or the formal legal system. One predominant explanation for why more Americans do not turn to lawyers with such situations involves the cost of legal services. But the findings of the Community Needs and Services Study make clear that it is not so simple. When facing civil justice situations, people often do not consider law at all. They frequently do not think of these situations as legal, nor do they think of courts or of attorneys as always appropriate providers of remedy.

The survey results confirm that it is of the utmost importance to inquire of the public what their legal needs are and what barriers, if any, they perceive in accessing legal services.The best way to determine what those with legal issues really need is to ask them.

The findings of this report also serve as a useful reminder that making assumptions about why people don’t access legal services and what is needed to get them to do so can lead us down the wrong path, potentially resulting in solutions that don’t address the real issues at all.

If those experiencing civil justice issues don’t perceive these to be legal issues, then why would they spend their hard earned dollars on getting legal advice? And if cost isn’t the primary issue but understanding that civil justice problems have legal implications is, then perhaps many of these concerns are best addressed through public legal education and information campaigns.


  1. Considering this situation in another light, “17% had concerns about the cost of seeking outside advice” of course this percentage may be low because: “When facing civil justice situations, people often do not consider law at all. They frequently do not think of these situations as legal, nor do they think of courts or of attorneys as always appropriate providers of remedy.” Is it possible that the percentage of those concerned about the cost of seeking outside legal advice might rise (may be even dramatically) if more of the people surveyed were to increasingly seek outside or legal advice? Or, perhaps the question asked should be, do you think your problem is worth the cost of legal advice? Results may vary depending on what questions and how questions are asked can they not?

  2. I could not agree more with your point Karen, people, represented or not, look at the confusing litigation process and feel dismayed. For each step they complete, they ask: Now what?

    Amici Curiae, our probono paralegal programme is publishing a Guide to Civil Litigation for Self-Represented Litigants. Our aim is to help increase access to justice by increasing access to information. Our clients will be provide checklists and information at each stage of their action to answer their question: Now what?

    The Guide will be released on September 25 at our paralegal conference in Vancouver.

  3. Dom,
    That sounds like a terrific resource for SRLs. Please do post a link here when it is released.