US Justice Needs Report Gives Insight on Access to Justice, Average American Client

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When the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System and the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law joined forces back in 2019, they had one goal in mind — to try to collect a wide swath of data spanning the entirety of the U.S. By providing a survey to the American public, they hoped to find out what legal problems the population faced, how they resolved them and who they went to for help.

“While it is widely understood that there is an access to justice problem in the United States, the full extent of the justice crisis has been less clear,” the report states. “The focus in the access to justice community historically has been on meeting the legal needs of those with low income, who have trouble accessing an expensive, complicated, and outdated legal system.”

Yesterday, both IAALS and the HiiL announced their findings with the release of their U.S. Justice Needs survey, which reached approximately 10,000 people, asking about legal problems Americans faced in the past four years and how they’ve handled trying to solving them and if they felt they’d reached a fair resolution.

“The findings of this survey indicate what our research has historically shown — that oftentimes the more developed a nation is, the more justice needs exist in the population and the greater the challenge of access to justice [is] for all,” said Dr. Martin Gramatikov, Measuring Justice Director at HiiL, in a statement. “While it is widely understood that there is an access to justice problem in the United States, the full extent of the justice crisis has been less clear, until now.”

The study had three key goals: to provide nationwide representative data on access to justice and the justice needs faced by Americans every day; to develop a greater understanding of how people resolve their justice needs and what’s working; and to urge an evidence-based strategy for justice system improvements to resolve the people’s needs.

While prior studies have been conducted mostly at the state level, exclusively focusing on low-income Americans or focused on filling gaps in specific justice services, according to the report, this study was the first nationwide survey of its size to measure how Americans across a range of socio-demographic groups experience and resolve their legal problems. 

Under the study, a legal problem was defined as an issue that survey respondents personally faced in the last four years that could’ve theoretically been solved by legal means, according to the report announcement presentation.

Study findings revealed that 66% of respondents faced some sort of legal problem in the past four years, which crossed multiple categories such as consumer problems, crime, work and employment, public benefits, police, immigration and personal injury, among others. That means about two out of every three individuals in the U.S. have to deal with at least one legal problem, Gramatikov said, and that this is “a lot of legal issues.”

Both groups hosted a presentation about the report on its release date overviewing some key findings from the research and noting important details that reflect not only how Americans use the legal system, but how Americans go about addressing legal problems.

As a generalization pulled from the survey results of the report, approximately 55 million Americans face around 260 million legal problems each year, according to the report. About 140 million legal problems are resolved in a fair manner but around 120 million are unresolved or perceived by people involved as “not sufficiently fair,” according to the report’s presentation.

In his presentation, Gramatikov noted that the survey held “inherently subjective” elements as it was up to the respondent to decide whether a particular problem was serious or not serious or what was fair or unfair. Further, certain legal problems were most likely misrepresented, according to Gramatikov, like domestic violence, sexual abuse and immigration.

“So, the data has limitations, but we still believe it has a lot, a lot of value,” Gramatikov said.

Demographic Information

The sample size of the survey reached 10,058 respondents from across the U.S. and 52% of respondents were females. The majority of respondents had a minimum income of $100,000 annually and the average age of the respondent was 48. Just under half of respondents lived in suburban environments, and only 17% lived in a rural area. 

While that may paint a picture of the average person responding to the survey, the report states “Americans experience legal problems at approximately the same rates across income levels, but the types of problems most often experienced vary by income group.”

Looking at the demographics of respondents, the report claims that men experience a slightly higher rate of legal problems than women, about 3% higher. Younger Americans encountered legal problems at a higher rate and the types of problems different age groups experience the most are often the same. Non-Hispanic Black and Multiracial Americans encountered legal problems at higher rates than other racial/ethnic groups, according to the report. While Black Americans faced the most “distinctive set of problems” including housing, work and employment and money-related issues.

The majority of respondents worked as paid employees, 58%, while 19% were retired. Only 8% of respondents were self-employed, 6% reported they weren’t working currently and 3% were disabled. One percent of respondents said they were on a temporary layoff.

In total, 63% of respondents were solely white, with no Hispanic heritage, according to the report. A total of 17% of respondents identified as Hispanic, while only 12% of respondents identified themselves as Black or African American. Only 7% of respondents identified as another ethnicity or race and less than 1% reported being of two races.

Further, Americans in urban environments experienced legal problems more frequently than those in suburban or rural areas — but no matter the location, largely the same legal problems were faced across suburban, urban and rural America, according to the report.

Across categories of age, race, salary or location, the most common legal problem types were consumer; personal injury/property damage; neighbor; work and employment; and crime. Most of the respondents placed their legal problem’s seriousness at about 5.8 on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the worst.

The survey also revealed notable data on the time costs and monetary expenses of legal problems and resolution. In terms of days, the most time-costly legal problem is domestic violence which takes around 228 days to resolve, followed by immigration at 218 and family at 195.

The most expensive in terms of monetary costs were problems with police, which a mean estimated cost to resolve came out to over $17,000. Family problems cost around $9,500, land about $8,900 and housing at $3,900. 

Legal Problems & Outcomes

Out of the legal problems faced by survey respondents, only half — 49% — were completely resolved. Of that number, 22% aren’t expecting their problems to be resolved in the future and 29% aren’t expected to be resolved at all, according to the presentation.

Overall, from survey findings provided in the presentation, the highest level of legal problems completely resolved were in traffic/parking/ordinance situations, at 80%. The lowest was in immigration situations, where only 30% were completely resolved. In consumer and family situations, half of all cases were resolved, and in work and employment situations only 38% were completely resolved.

On the flip side, the highest percentage of legal problems left unresolved where respondents held no hope for future resolution were in problems with police at 52%, compared with only 33% of problems with police being completely resolved. Only 14% of respondents said they were in ongoing legal situations with some resolution expected in the future, according to the report. Other high no-expected-resolution categories included work and employment at 47%, crime at 40% and domestic violence and abuse at 33%.

Immigration proved to have the highest percentage of ongoing cases with expected future outcomes at 47% of respondents, followed by government services at 38%.

And, while low-income Americans are affected by the resolution gap, it isn’t the only income group feeling the impact of the access to justice crisis, according to the report.

About 74% of all respondents who faced a legal problem took action to address the issue, according to the presentation. Ninety percent of people took action in family issues, 82% when involving public benefits and 81% in land cases. The lowest category of respondents taking action were in traffic/parking at 53%, police problems at 55% and employment at 67%.

Looking For Help

But where the respondents went looking for help on their legal issues covered a wide range of sources inside and outside the legal framework of the U.S. In general, most people seeking professional help went to attorneys, about 23% of them, very few turned to the courts for help, only about 14%.

Other sources of help reported included family members — who about 21% of respondents went to — trailing close the percentage turning to lawyers, according to the presentation findings. Besides family, respondents turned to insurance companies and police, tied at 18%, and to friends at 15% — before turning to the courts.

The reasons for not using a lawyer, when asked, were varied. The most prominent, at 26%, was respondents believing that a lawyer wasn’t necessary, according to the presentation. Another 17% believed that their issue wasn’t a legal issue, and another 16% felt that the issue wasn’t an appropriate one for an attorney.

Less than 15% of respondents said they couldn’t afford a lawyer and only about 3% of respondents believed that bringing in a lawyer would only cause more problems, according to the presentation. Notably, around 1% of respondents reported they didn’t know how to find an attorney and no one reported that there wasn’t a lawyer present in their community.

In addition, only 2% of all respondents reported that they didn’t trust lawyers and only 1% reported not liking lawyers. It is worth noting that about 8% of respondents chose to answer why they didn’t use a lawyer by selecting the “other” category.

At 14%, people seeking help from the courts was only above the “other” and local agency categories, at 10%, and mental health professionals and health or medical professionals at 8% and 7% respectively. Notably, about 7% of respondents turned to their employers for help. 

What sources respondents went to trying to find advice or information about their legal issue varied. The most common source for information was the internet, at 31% of all respondents, followed by lawyers at 29%. 

Next, they turned to a family member, then a friend, then to police, next to local agency or government — coming eventually to legal aid options at 8% and only 7% of respondents headed to the courts for help. After the courts, co-worker, mental health professionals and federal agencies or the government all tied at 6% of respondents. 

The survey also revealed that about 62% of respondents sought out legal information and advice. The most common area of legal problems for a respondent to seek legal advice was in immigration issues, where 93% of respondents had sought advice, compared with only 42% of respondents in consumer problems, the lowest percentage who sought out advice.

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