The Denver-based Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System announced it will carry out a nationwide survey of a broad swath of U.S. residents and businesses to find out what their legal needs are and how the country’s legal system can be reformed.
IAALS is teaming up with the Netherlands-based Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL), which has carried out similar justice needs surveys in 18 countries, including Nigeria, Lebanon, Ukraine and Indonesia.
The two-year study, which launched earlier this month with a kick-off meeting at the IAALS headquarters, is funded by the Bohemian Foundation in Fort Collins, which offers grants to community arts and civic organizations.
IAALS and HiiL will be working with a company to help them administer the computer-based survey to make sure the study covers people from all around the country with a mix of urban and rural respondents and representation from all ages, genders, ethnicities and income levels.
While she was reluctant to make too many predictions about what the survey might find, Brittany Kauffman, a senior director at IAALS, said that based on the trends the organization has found in its other work, she suspects family law and debt collection will be prominent issues among U.S. respondents.
“I also think in addition to low-income [people], we’re going to find that people who are in the middle-income bracket, as well, are really facing legal needs and struggling with how to get resolution and access to our system,” Kauffman said.
IAALS and HiiL will finalize the survey over the fall and administer it in the spring. After the results are in, they plan to finish the report in early fall 2020 and share the data widely to give lawyers and judges the information they need to improve the legal system.
“We want attorneys to read these reports and really understand what the legal needs are in their communities [and] their regions that are, or are not, being met,” she said. “I think that’s important for lawyers to understand when they’re thinking about their own practice and how they’re meeting the needs of their clients.”
The results could help legislators understand the unmet legal needs and better allocate funding for courts in the communities they represent, Kauffman said.
IAALS will also conduct two other surveys, with input from HiiL, of small and mid-sized businesses and another for larger corporations about their own justice needs and experiences with the legal system, the results of which will be released in a companion report next fall.
Kauffman said that while similar surveys have been conducted for different states, it has been decades since a nationwide survey of the justice needs of people from all income groups has been done.
“IAALS really felt like it was important to do a justice needs survey in the United States that was up to date,” she said.
“HiiL has the experience of doing these types of surveys around the world. But they hadn’t yet done it in the United States,” Kaufmann said. “And so we approached them to ask if they would like to partner with us on this project.”
“There is a common misconception that most access to justice issues affect developing countries,” Dr. Martin Gramatikov, Measuring Justice Director at HiiL, said in a news release. “Our research has revealed that to be unfounded.
“In fact, we can state that often times the more developed a nation is, the more justice needs exist in the population, and the greater the challenge of access to justice for all. That is why we specifically chose to bring our experience and survey to the United States,” Gramatikov said.
IAALS and HiiL have overlapping goals in that they both take an evidence-based approach to justice system reform, according to Kauffman.
“We also have a similar approach in that we believe that reform should be user-centric and should be focused on understanding what is happening for the users of our legal system,” she added.
IAALS and HiiL will co-publish the survey findings with online interactive dashboards that “allow greater transparency and a deeper dive into the data,” and the results will establish a baseline that will allow for a follow-up comparative study in five or ten years, according to the news release.
— Jessica Folker