I have written previously about the 2003 Civil Legal Needs Study. The study was updated in 2014 and the Civil Legal Needs Study Update was released in June 2015. This is a statewide survey of low-income households in Washington State regarding their access to justice. The updated report notes that the number of people living in poverty and the overall poverty rate has increased since 2003.
Consistent with the 2003 findings, “more than 70% of low-income households had a civil legal problem within the prior 12 month period and more than three quarters of those who had a legal problem did not seek or were not able to obtain legal help with respect to these problems.” In addition, “large percentages of low-income people did not get help because they did not understand that the problems they face have a legal dimension or because legal help was not available.”
Some differences from the 2003 study included the increase of per capita civil legal problems from 3.3 per household a year in 2003 to 9.3 in 2014. There was also a large change in the types of legal problems experienced by low-income families. “[R]espondents to the 2014 survey reported the highest percentage of problems in the areas of health care, consumer-finance and employment.”
The graph below depicts the percentage of respondents that experienced a legal problem within the preceding 12 months of the survey by substantive legal category. “Thus, for example, 43.4% of all households, had at least one legal problem with health care, 37.6% experienced at least one consumer problem, 33.6% had at least one problem involving employment, etc.”
“[T]he 2014 Update found there to be a significant difference between the type of problems that are most often experienced and types of problems for which legal help was most often sought. While the greatest prevalence of problems fall within the areas of health care (43.4%), consumer finance-credit (37.6%) and employment (33.6%), low-income people most often seek legal help when they face problems involving housing (28.0%), family relations (27.0%) and consumer-finance credit issues 20.0%). These appear to be areas of problems where, from the perspective of the low-income respondents, there is a clearer understanding that the problems have a legal dimension and that there are court-based solutions to resolve them.” As in 2003, family law is one of the more common areas in which legal assistance is sought.
The following two graphs show the differences in the legal problems facing low-income families between the 2003 Study and the 2014 Update.
It is worth noting that while Washington State has currently implemented the Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT) program in an effort to reduce the justice gap, LLLTs are only licensed to practice family law. Of all problems reported in the Update, only 7.4% were family related.
“Figure 46 shows the percentages of respondents who made efforts to get legal help with one or more of the problems they identified. Of all respondents who reported at least one legal problem (71.1% of all households), 24.0 % tried and got some level of legal help while 11.0% sought, but could not get it. Fully 65.0% did not take action to get legal help to solve legal problems.”
“Of all respondents who tried to get legal help to resolve a problem they identified (Figure 47), 36.0% went to a paid attorney, 24.0% went to a legal aid, 12% went to the CLEAR hotline, and 19.0% went to a volunteer attorney, etc.”
Unlike the 2003 Survey, the 2014 Update focused much less on the reasons why respondents did not seek or obtain legal help. Of the 1,375 respondents, only 100 sought help but could not obtain it. Of these 100 respondents, almost 1/3 said they could not afford to pay for help. The Update also focused on respondents’ views of the civil justice system. “[M]ore than forty-percent of all respondents (41.2%) do not believe that people like them have the ability to use the courts to protect themselves and their families or to otherwise enforce important legal rights.” “[N]early 30 percent of all respondents do not believe that people like them are treated fairly in the civil justice system.” “[M]ore than one quarter of respondents (26.7%) felt that the civil justice system offered limited value as a forum for solving important problems; and only 28.8% felt that the civil justice system could help people like them solve important problems most or all of the time.”
Interestingly, all of the issues that precluded access to the justice system, as reported by respondents, had to do with the courts themselves and not attorney costs. “[N]early half (45.0%) of these [households involved in a legal proceeding] had difficulty accessing and filing required court forms. More than a third (37.3%) reported problems that affected their ability to effectively participate in the proceeding, the same percentage (37.3%) had difficulties with understanding court rules and procedures, and 32.2% reported that the tribunal would not waive court fees and charges.”
It is worth pointing out that creating additional legal practitioners will not reduce court fees, make court rules easier to understand, or make courts consistently provide court forms. These changes must be made by the courts themselves and are foundational to increasing access to justice.