What We Know and Need to Know about the Legal Needs of the Public

17 Pages Posted: 11 Apr 2017

See all articles by Rebecca L. Sandefur

Rebecca L. Sandefur

Arizona State University; American Bar Foundation

Date Written: 2016


In contemporary market democracies, law reaches deeply into many aspects of daily life. Thousands of Americans every day find themselves facing troubles that emerge “at the intersection of civil law and everyday adversity,” involving work, finances, insurance, pensions, wages, benefits, shelter, and the care of young children and dependent adults, among other core matters. Though these different types of problems affect different aspects of people’s lives and concern different kinds of relationships, they are defined by a central important quality: they are justiciable. They have civil legal aspects, raise civil legal issues, have consequences shaped by civil law, and may become objects of formal legal action.

This Paper reviews what we know about the civil legal needs of the public, focusing on the U.S. context but drawing on research from peer nations as well. In so doing, the Paper reveals some key gaps in our knowledge. Across a range of studies, we have good evidence that:

• Experience with civil justice situations is common and widespread, affecting all segments of the population. Many involve “bread and butter issues” at the core of contemporary life, affecting livelihood, shelter, or the care and custody of dependents. • Populations that are vulnerable or disadvantaged often report higher rates of contact with civil justice situations, and greater incidence of negative consequences from these events. • Most civil justice situations will never involve contact with an attorney or a court.

The most important reasons that people do not take their civil justice situations to law are: (1) they do not think the issues are legal or consider law as a solution; and (2) they often believe that they understand their situations, and are taking those actions that are possible.

• The cost of legal services or court processes plays a secondary role in people’s decisions about how to handle the civil justice situations they encounter.

Paradoxically, despite the stylized facts we often deploy in our arguments and advocacy, we do not know the answers to some of the million dollar questions. To be specific, we do not know:

• How many civil justice situations are actually civil legal needs; • How many civil legal needs go unmet; and • How civil legal needs affect the people who experience them and society at large.

Suggested Citation

Sandefur, Rebecca L., What We Know and Need to Know about the Legal Needs of the Public (2016). South Carolina Law Review, Vol. 67, p. 443-460, 2016, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2949010

Rebecca L. Sandefur (Contact Author)

Arizona State University ( email )

Tempe, AZ 85287
United States

American Bar Foundation ( email )

750 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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