By: Laura K. Abel and Susan Vignola. Published by: Seattle Journal for Social Justice. Published in January 2010
Abel gathers the results of existing studies and identifies ongoing or planned research, as well as suggests possible future fields of study. Abel points out that economic and other concrete societal benefits of legal aid can motivate funders but there is a lack of information about whether these economic benefits actually exist.
In the studies that she surveyed, Abel found that the following provided economic benefits: Legal support for victims of domestic violence reduced domestic violence rates and the associated law enforcement costs; Representation of parents in child welfare cases kept families together and reduced the time children spent in foster care; Medical legal partnerships for clients with medical and legal needs improved these clients’ health and generated revenue for hospitals; Legal support for children with criminal records reduced re-arrest rates, lowering law enforcement costs Abel suggests that future research should study the effect of civil legal representation on foreclosure and the effect of legal aid over an extended period of time.
Overall, she states that a few factors will make studying the effects of civil legal aid easier: Increased use of electronic files by legal aid organizations, which make sorting through information Legal aid organizations learning about what additional information, within ethical boundaries, that they should collect on their clients. Increased use by legal aid organizations and social sciences of other sources of information beyond the legal environment.
Abel, however, does warn that using existing records may lead to a “case selection” bias – studies will be based only on the cases selected by legal aid organizations due to the chance of success. To handle this issue, Abel supports the use of randomized studies as a gold standard, citing a randomized study of tenant housing in New York as an example.