Legal Problems and the Poor

The Legal problems of Canadians are not evenly distributed. Data from the 2014 CFCJ survey – Everyday Legal Problems in Canada – indicates that a disproportionate percentage of persons who experience legal problems bear the burden of a significant amount of all legal problems— 10% of persons who have at least one legal problem experience 1/3 of all legal problems. Additionally, data indicates that a large cross-section of persons who experience legal problems are among the poorest in Canadian society. The CFCJ survey also confirms that overall, there is a high prevalence of everyday legal problems within Canadian society, with 47% of all adult Canadians expected to experience one or more legal problem within a three-year period. For persons in households with yearly incomes of $20,000 or less, this number rises to 50.8%

The survey goes further to indicate that respondents with household incomes of $20,000 or less annually were also more likely to experience multiple problems than the general population. In this case, 27% of low-income respondents experienced three or more problems during the same time period compared with 19% for all respondents. Individuals who face several legal problems bear many of the same markers of disadvantage, including low education, low income and single parenthood.

Respondents with household incomes of $20,000 or less were more likely to have long-standing problems with unemployment, debt, and housing. With respect to employment, 7% of respondents with household incomes of $20,000 or less reported long-standing problems during their adult lives compared with 1% overall; 10% of the low income group had long-standing problems with debt compared with 5% for all respondents; and 16% of low income respondents experienced systemic problems obtaining affordable, quality housing compared with 3% of all respondents.

In 11 out of 17 legal problem categories, respondents from low income households have a higher occurrence of legal problems. These categories include consumer debt, social assistance, disability support, housing, police action, family (relationship breakdown), personal injury, medical treatment, threat of legal action, and problems with neighbours. As regards the frequency of specific legal issues among individuals in low-income households the majority of problems were evidenced in 9 of the 17 categories.

These numbers provide some perspective on the legal problems of the poor in a wide range of civil matters and also show the extent to which experiencing legal problems is related to poverty in Canada.

Legal aid is one of the most important institutions for meeting the legal needs of the poor in Canada. Most legal aid plans, however, provide little service in areas of law outside of criminal and family matters and, because of limited funding, struggle to sufficiently address deficiencies in other legal service areas. Richard Zorza highlights similar issues in a recent blog post. He discusses efforts to make access to justice more inclusive through state-wide access to justice commissions in the U.S. (July, 2015). Engaging with private philanthropy is one of four strategic areas that these state-wide commissions plan to pursue. In the survey that followed a recent national meeting of the commissions, 50% of access to justice commissions indicated that they planned to pursue a connection with large philanthropic organizations and 40% noted that they were exploring the possibility. These results show promise for the access to justice arena, in particular since many major private funding organizations already have poverty reduction mandates. The connection between poverty and the experience of legal problems is clearly demonstrated in the empirical data.

In Canada today the vast majority of funding for legal aid comes from the government. This has both advantages and disadvantages. Current funding is lacking, a situation that may be the product of legal aid’s historical reliance on government funding. Because of this relatively exclusive funding model, there is an ongoing risk of funding cuts, as the government attempts to balance budgets and control public debt. In the face of this threat, backed as it is by national empirical data that demonstrates a link between legal problems and low income, Canadians might benefit from private sources of funding that can supplement and expand the legal aid support system.

By Ab Currie, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow
Canadian Forum on Civil Justice


  1. What about the cost of legal representation itself?

    If law societies regulated fees, I suggest it would have two effects
    (1) increase both the availability of legal services to the poor generally, and the size of the
    pool of potential clients who could seriously even consider retaining a lawyer, and
    (2) in the long term, change the character of the legal professional (as a collection of individuals) for the better by making the practice of law more like social work, rather
    than drawing in the sorts of people who’s skills are better employed in such
    fields as sales and business entrepreneurship.