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Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada

Last month, as part of a five-year SSHRC funded research project exploring the costs of justice, the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice released the first data from its national legal problems survey, “Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada”. Completed in 2014 with over 3000 respondents, the survey finds that everyday legal problems are ubiquitous in the lives of adult Canadians. Over any given three-year period almost 50% of adult Canadians will experience at least one legal problem that they find series and difficult to resolve.

What Are Everyday Legal Problems?

Everyday legal problems are the kinds of legal problems that arise when things go wrong in the normal activities of people’s everyday lives. Harassment at work, wrongful dismissal, unfair eviction, divorce, trouble obtaining support payments, having to dispute a will or a gym contract, are all examples of everyday legal problems. According to our preliminary survey data, the top everyday legal problems experienced by Canadians are: consumer problems, debt problems, and employment problems. Neighbor and family problems closely follow these.

Yet despite the high number of people that experience everyday legal problems, only a small percentage of people obtain legal help in dealing with them, and only a very small percentage use any part of the formal justice system to resolve them. Of those we surveyed, about 95%, took some kind of action to try to resolve their everyday legal problem and the vast majority, about 85%, said it was important for them to have the matter resolved. Nonetheless, almost 50% of people say the problem remained unresolved. For those who had resolved their problem only about 50% said they achieved most or all of what they had expected in the outcome. A whopping 40% said that they felt the outcome was unfair. In short, everyday legal problems are serious and difficult problems that can have major consequences in people’s lives – particularly if they remain unresolved.

Why do they Matter?

Everyday legal problems can have a negative effect on the social and economic wellbeing individuals and their families. Consider the following.

  • Almost 18% of people we surveyed said they experienced stress or an emotional problem as a direct consequence of an everyday legal problem. This amounts to over 2 million people in any given three-year period (the reference period of the study).
  • Just over 13% reported experiencing a physical health problem as a direct consequence of their legal problem. That’s over 1 million people in any given three- year period.

Put a little bit differently, over the three years covered by our study about 3.4 million people reported experiencing a physical health problem and/or high lives of stress as a direct consequence of that legal problem. That is more people than the combined populations of Edmonton, Ottawa, and Halifax!

Beyond the impact on the individual, everyday legal problems can potentially lead to considerable “knock-on” costs to the state. That is, they can increase the cost of publically funded services and programs. Consider that over the three years covered by our study,

  • Over 200 000 people reported receiving social assistance as a direct result of their legal problem.
  • Almost 1 million people reported losing employment because of a legal problem they experienced.
  • Over 900 000 reported visiting physicians more frequently than usual as a consequence of having an everyday legal problem.

When these numbers are used to calculate “knock-on” costs to the state, what we see is that unresolved legal problems can potentially result in an estimated,

  • $248 million in additional social assistance costs.
  • $458 million in additional employment insurance costs.
  • $40 million in additional heath care costs.

When combined this amount is approximately 2.35 times greater than the annual direct services expenditures on legal aid.

These individual and pubic service costs are just a few examples of how everyday legal issues affect all of us and how failing to prevent and resolve them costs us all. Stay tuned! More survey data and analysis is coming soon.

To view our first fact sheet on these issues click here.

To read about why this data should matter to the legal profession in particular, read Omar Ha-Redeye’s recent Slaw piece here.

~ Nicole Aylwin, Ab Currie & Trevor Farrow

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