IAALS Launches Nationwide Survey on People’s Everyday Justice Problems

Study seeks to understand how people resolve their problems and whether they use legal system

Financial resources aren’t the only factor in determining whether people seek out a lawyer for their justice problems, and people who have the ability to pay for a lawyer don’t always hire one. 

The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System aims to find out why that is with its recently launched U.S. Justice Needs survey to paint a picture of issues people encounter in their everyday lives and how they typically go about solving them. 

Logan Cornett, IAALS’ director of research, said the survey is intentionally structured to ask respondents broadly about issues they encounter  rather than specifically framing  the questions as legal problems. 

IAALS senior director Brittany Kauffman added the survey seeks to get information about choices people tend to make when trying to resolve their issues, such as whether they use attorneys or the legal system and why they make those choices.

“The goal is that by understanding the paths that people have taken to address their legal needs, we can then move into figuring out, what can we do in terms of the system and target our reform efforts to make a difference in their paths” and better match up resolution options with the ways people actually approach resolving their problems, she said.

“We often are trying to figure out where to target our efforts without complete knowledge,” she said. “The goal of the project to take an evidence-based approach to reform and use the resulting data to hone in on the most common legal needs and people’s barriers and successes in resolving their needs.

Kauffman said the survey asks about problems in a number of themes, though respondents don’t see the lists broken down into categories on the survey. Some themes include housing, neighbors, crime, policing, work and employment, finances, public benefits, and consumer issues.

The survey also asks respondents when the problems they indicate arose and whether they believe they have been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cornett said. “We recognized that we needed to be able to distinguish between regular life problems and pandemic-related problems,” she said.

The survey will get responses from 10,000 people. Researchers involved say it stands out from other justice needs studies in that it has a nationwide reach and seeks responses from people of all socioeconomic classes. 

“To put a research-y bow on that, what that really means is that results from this survey are going to be generalizable to the broader American public in a way that previous survey efforts have not been,” Cornett said. 

Kauffman said studies done by legal aid organizations, such as the Legal Services Corporation, have focused on low-income people because those are their clients, Arizona State University Professor Rebecca Sandefur, who studies access to civil justice, and serves as an advisory committee member for the project, said the American Bar Association funded  a nationwide study on justice needs in the 1990s.

“That study is a great resource, but it very much reflects the concerns and interests of lawyers. … If you look at the report that came out of the study, it answered questions that made sense for lawyers to need to know the answer to.”

She said the U.S. Justice Needs survey is distinctive because it will gather information from the perspectives of everyday people, instead of focusing on information lawyers believe is important. “One of the most important sources of information about what people need is those people,” Sandefur said. She added that conversations about access to low-cost and pro bono legal aid have been “entirely among lawyers based on their anecdotal impressions about what people might want or need. … Moving away from having lawyers drive the conversation is a really important part of asking ordinary people to tell you about their own justice problems.”

Sandefur said the understanding that people don’t seek lawyers for reasons other than cost is an important insight into what shapes people’s approaches to solving their problems. Often people don’t think of their problems as legal needs even if they could be resolved through the legal system, she said, instead tending to attribute them to bad luck or the will of a higher power.

“And so the mismatch isn’t just the cost of legal services. It’s the way the current set of providers, which is lawyers for the most part, understand what people need and people’s own understanding of what they need,” Sandefur said. “And those two things are very far apart from each other right now.” 

–Julia Cardi

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