What We Know and Need to Know about the Legal Needs of the Public

This report reviews results from civil legal needs studies conducted in the United States. Among the observations made in the report:

  • civil justice problems are widespread, and often involve "bread and butter" issues such as shelter and livelihood
  • marginalized people report more civil legal problems, and more negative consequences resulting from these problems
  • many people do not view legal problems as "legal", or as having a solution within the legal system
  • most civil justice problems never involve contact with a lawyer or a court

The report also canvasses the possibility that not all legal problems or "civil justice situations" result in unmet "legal" needs that require the help of a lawyer to address successfully. Given the scarcity of free or cheap legal help, many people engage in informal solutions to their legal problems, such as making informal agreements with a spouse or landlord. However, it will be challenging for researchers to determine the point at which a civil justice situation leads to a "legal need" that is optimally pursued or addressed through the legal system. It is also difficult to use research to determine how many civil legal needs actually go unmet, and how these needs affect both the people who experience them and society at large.

The report concludes that in order to decide which civil legal needs are best targeted in a climate of scarce resources, we must address the following questions:

  • what existing civil legal needs are out there?
  • when do these needs truly go unmet?
  • how do these needs affect both individuals and society?