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The Challenges of Calculating the Benefits of Providing Access to Legal Services

45 Pages Posted: 1 Apr 2010 Last revised: 12 Oct 2010

J.J. Prescott

University of Michigan Law School

Date Written: February 1, 2010


In this invited essay, I explore how policymakers and other public-interested actors have empirically calculated the benefits of providing low-income access to civil legal services in the past, and how they might improve upon existing methods going forward. My argument proceeds in five parts. First, I briefly explain the optimal approach to allocating public funds from a welfare economics perspective. Second, I introduce the challenges of valuing “benefits” in the context of the public provision of legal services. Third, I summarize and critique existing attempts to quantify the benefits of and need for legal services funding. Specifically, I review, criticize, and try to build on two major civil justice needs studies, one published by the Legal Services Corporation in 2005 (reissued in 2007) and the other by the American Bar Association in 1994. Fourth, I briefly, but critically, assess the arguments on the other side of the legal services debate, where commentators regularly rely on anecdotes and empirically unverified assumptions to argue for reducing the public provision of legal services. Finally, I describe the basic methods that cost-benefit analysis employs to crack the difficult nut of measuring the value of publicly provided services generally, and I sketch a few ideas for how a researcher might design and conduct a study using these ideas to measure (at least some of) the benefits of providing access to legal services to low-income individuals.

Keywords: legal services, cost-benefit analysis, welfare economics, LSC, ABA

JEL Classification: D6, H4, K4

Suggested Citation

Prescott, J.J., The Challenges of Calculating the Benefits of Providing Access to Legal Services (February 1, 2010). Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1, p. 303, 2010; U of Michigan Law & Econ, Empirical Legal Studies Center No. 10-010; U of Michigan Public Law Working No. 191. Available at SSRN:

J.J. Prescott (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

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