Legal Needs and Civil Justice: A Survey of Americans, Major Findings from the Comprehensive Legal Needs Study

Published by: ABA Consortium on Legal Services and the Public. Published in March 1994.

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The American Bar Association, though its Consortium on Legal Services and the Public, studied the civil legal needs of low- and moderate-income Americans. Five objectives guided the study: to learn about the nature and number of situations households face that raise legal issues, to see what steps people take in dealing with those situations, to ascertain what kinds of legal services are provided regarding needs brought to the legal system, to assess the public’s awareness of the legal services available, and to gauge the reactions of those who have had contact with the civil justice system.

Study Details

The study involved more than 3,000 interviews conducted with low- and moderate-income Americans during the spring and summer of 1993. It was based on three samples: a sample of all households with telephones in the 48 contiguous states of the United States; an oversample of households with telephones with numbers drawn from exchanges known to contain households with low-incomes; and a sample of nonphone households in urban areas. The last component of the sample plan, which relied on in-person interviews, was to provide some insurance against the possibility that the legal needs of households without telephones differed in important ways from those with phones. Collectively, the three sample elements yielded 1,782 interviews among low-income households (1,525 by phone and 257 in-person) and 1,305 among moderate-income households(1,259 by phone and 46 in-person).

The same questionnaire was used for both the low- and moderate-income samples to ensure comparability. The strategy was to ask respondents about each of 67 specific sets of circumstances anyone in their household may have experienced during 1992. When respondents reported such circumstances, follow-up questions probed in greater detail to ensure that the situation described constituted a legal need and that it had been recorded correctly by the interviewer.


Approximately half of low- and moderate-income American households are facing one or more situations that could be addressed by the system of civil justice. Nearly three quarters (71 percent) of these situations faced by low-income households arenot finding their way to the justice system. For moderate-income households, the proportion is nearly two thirds (61 percent). The most common legal needs of low- and moderate-income American households pertain to personal finances, consumer issues, housing (both owned and rental), and other real property. Few differences among subgroups are statistically significant when it comes to the kinds of legal needs of low- and moderate-income American households–other than in the situations of older persons and the profoundly poor.

The most common course of action in dealing with a legal need for both low- and moderate income households is to try to handle the situation on their own. Turning to the justice system is the second most frequent action for moderate-income households. But for low-income households the second most common approach is to take no action at all.

Legal needs most likely to be taken to the civil justice system by both low- and moderate income households deal with family and domestic issues. Categories of needs ranked next in terms of legal system involvement relate to personal or economic injury (for low-income households) and estate-related matters (for moderate-income households).

Legal needs least likely to be brought into the civil justice system by low-income households relate to issues regarding community and region, health, employment, housing and property, and personal finances and consumer matters.

Legal needs least likely to be brought into the civil justice system by moderate-income households relate to personal finances and consumer issues, employment-associated matters, personal/economic injury, community/regional issues, and housing and property.

Reasons for not turning to the justice system when faced with a legal need differ between low- and moderate-income households. A sense that legal assistance will not help and fear of the cost are the principal reasons given by low-income respondents. Moderate-income respondents are more likely to dismiss the matter as not all that serious a problem and think they can deal with it on their own. They are less likely to cite cost considerations than low-income respondents but share the view that the justice system would not help. Both low- and moderate-income households are more likely to be satisfied with the ultimate resolution of a matter if it is brought to the civil justice system than if it is not. The overwhelming majority of those having turned to a lawyer rate that advocate highly on such attributes as honesty and attentiveness to the client.

Categories: National, Researchers and Academics

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