Accessing Justice in Contemporary America: The Community Needs and Services Survey

By: Rebecca L. Sandefur. Published by: American Bar Foundation. Published in August 2014

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What do people do when they face significant problems that could bring them into contact with the civil justice system? What can they do?

What we know: Civil justice problems are common, wide-spread, and can impact people and families deeply and for a long time. These problems affect core areas of contemporary life: security of shelter, livelihood, credit, debt and cash flow, the care and custody of dependents. People can lose their homes, their jobs, custody of their children, or access to insurance, benefits or pensions to which they are entitled. Most civil justice problems never make it to lawyers or to courts. People handle their civil justice problems in a variety of ways, a minority of which involve the explicit use of law. Concerns about cost explain only a small part of people’s decisions not to turn to law. Free service providers are often overwhelmed by public needs. For example, LSC-funded organizations currently turn away more people than they serve for lack of resources to serve them.

What we don’t know: When people don’t go to law, what do they do about their civil justice problems? How do people think about their options when they face civil justice problems? When people turn to lawyers and other providers for services, what do these providers provide? How do these providers provide – how do they fund their work, whom do they serve, what do they offer, how do they relate to each other? Starting to Discover the Answers: The Community Needs and Services Study (CNSS) The study focuses on a core set of commonly experienced problems surrounding issues such as personal finances, housing and family relationships. These problems are carefully selected to be those that have civil legal aspects, raise civil legal issues, and have consequences shaped by civil law. The study has three components: (1) The Public Survey, an in-person survey of a representative sample of adult residents of the study city inquiring about the incidence of the selected problems, responses to such problems, and how such problems affect the people who experience them; (2) The Provider Survey, a survey of both legal and non-legal organizations and programs that may provide people with information or advice about, or services for, civil justice problems; (3) The In-depth Interview Study, a series of in-depth follow-up interviews with a subsample of respondents to the Public Survey.

The study draws on a theoretical approach that conceptualizes civil justice as a social institution. Understood in this way, civil justice concerns how justice problems actually get handled and resolved (or not). Formal law constitutes certain problems as “justiciable,” as having legal aspects, raising legal issues, having consequences defined in law, and being eligible for formal legal actions. The experiences people have with these problems constitute civil justice as a social institution: the regular practices though which people characteristically respond to civil justice problems and the experiences they have when they engage in those different practices. Conceptualizing civil justice as a social institution directs attention to the wide range of ways that people respond to their justice problems, the variety of resources they may draw upon, and the broader impacts of law on people’s lives.

Major support is provided by the American Bar Foundation and the National Science Foundation (SES-1123507). First-ever study to pair an investigation of the civil justice problems people experience with an investigation of the legal and non-legal resources available to assist them in handling those problems. Multi-method, drawing on surveys of the public, surveys of providers, interviews, and network analysis. Multi-disciplinary, drawing on expertise in law, sociology, statistics, policy, economics, and psychology. Community-sited, allowing assessment of the relative importance of local, national, and “virtual” resources for different kinds of problems and groups in the population.

Categories: General/Unspecified Clients, National, Policymakers and Funders

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