By: Robert Echols Published by: Dialogue. Published in June 2005
Echols reports on nine state surveys of legal needs using the methodology used by the ABA’s Comprehensive Legal Needs Study conducted in 1993. Each state study found levels of legal need were equal to or higher than those uncovered by the ABA study. They also found that legal service providers, both public and private, serve only a small portion of the legal needs reported by low-income households.
Each study used a survey questionnaire similar to the one used in the ABA study. The questionnaires asked each respondent about sets of circumstances that frequently involve legal issues. A panel of attorneys ensured each situation the respondent described involved a legal problem, and then follow-up questions were asked about what the households did to resolve the issue and whether they had any contact with the civil justice system. States that conducted surveys include Oregon, Vermont, Connecticut, Washington, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Illinois, Montana, and New Jersey.
All nine state studies showed that only a small portion of the legal needs surveyed were resolved through the civil justice system with the aid of a legal professional. Seven state studies reported that a large percentage of respondents did not realize that their problem had a legal dimension and potential solution. Many respondents avoided seeking professional legal support because they did not believe they could afford it. New Jersey (26%), Tennessee (21%), and Illinois (23%) had the lowest percentages of respondents who were aware of available free legal aid. Several state studies asked respondents to rank the importance of legal needs or to identify those needs for which they thought they needed a lawyers help. Of these studies: Montana respondents characterized 53% of the legal problems identified as “extremely important” and 91 percent of the problems as “important”. Of New Jersey respondents, 84% of people with a legal problem thought the problem was highly serious and important, and 52% thought they needed a lawyer’s support. Of Washington respondents, 56% characterized their legal problems as “extremely important” and 93% characterized their problems as “important”.
The state studies supported the findings of the ABA’s Comprehensive Legal Needs Study conducted in 1993, even suggesting that the rate of justice problems and the “justice gap” might be larger than originally suspected. The state studies also suggest that the reason individuals did not seek legal help was not because the individuals thought their legal problems were unimportant, but rather was due to other reasons.