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The knowledge gap

Briefs

Cite as: December 2012 86 (12) LIJ, p.19

A nationwide survey of legal needs has found that only half of all Victorians sought advice for their legal issues, and just 16 per cent of those actually got that advice from a practising lawyer.

The Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales produced the Legal Australia-Wide Survey: Legal Need in Victoria (http://tinyurl.com/9mg5tsx) after interviewing 4410 Victorians on 129 different types of civil, criminal and family law problems.

Importantly, many of the legal problems were not only technical issues but related to illness, family or relationship breakdowns, financial stress and employment issues.

The report found more than two million Victorians experienced at least one legal problem each year and that that problem was likely to be rated moderate to severe. Of those surveyed 50 per cent received advice for the problems, 32 per cent handled them without advice and 18 per cent took no action at all.

LIV President Michael Holcroft said the extent and severity of legal problems in Victoria was both unexpected and concerning and pointed to a large unmet need for legal advice.

“The survey found that those who ignored their legal problems achieved poor outcomes,” he said.

“This underscores the need to mobilise people, and government, to take action, help people identify their legal rights, and provide relevant advice services.”

The survey found those most vulnerable to legal problems were people with a disability, single parents, the unemployed and those living in disadvantaged housing.

It also found three prevalent “clusters of legal problems”: the consumer, crime, government and housing problem groups; the credit/debt, family and money problem groups; and the employment, health, personal injury and rights problem groups.

Legal problems relating to family issues had the most adverse consequences. Financial strain was associated with 29 per cent of legal problems while stress-related illness accounted for 20 per cent. Generally, people with legal problems can develop illnesses, have relationship breakdowns or lose their home. Mr Holcroft said the survey clearly pointed to “the need for a holistic response to legal needs”.

“We need to work with other organisations, and not just legal organisations, to improve the community awareness of their rights and legal options. The LIV is working with the Smart Justice coalition to increase community awareness of the causes of crime.”

The survey indicated that multiple strategies were needed to address needs, including more intensive and integrated service provision for vulnerable groups.

Mr Holcroft said the survey reinforced the vitally important role of legal aid and private lawyers in preventing legal issues from escalating.

The report on Victoria was one in a series of nine reports, one for each state and territory and one for Australia as a whole.

In conducting the survey, the Foundation telephoned households using random digit dialling between January and November 2008.

The Legal Needs survey findings will be discussed in a plenary session at the upcoming National Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference to be held in Melbourne on 21 and 22 March 2013. For further information visit www.a2j13.com.au.

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