The Justice Gap: The Unmet Legal Needs of Low-Income Utahns
by Utah Legal Services and “and Justice for all” under the guidance of D. Michael Dale
“Equal justice is not just a caption on the façade of the Supreme Court building. It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society....It is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.”
– Justice Lewis Powell, Jr., Former Associate Justice,
US Supreme Court
Utah Legal Services and “and Justice for all” commissioned a study, summarized in the following reprint of The Justice Gap: The Unmet Legal Needs of Low-Income Utahns, in order to better understand the civil legal needs of households 130% below the federal poverty level.
The Justice Gap report is the culmination of 1,500 face-to-face and in-depth interviews performed across Utah in 2005 and 2006. Surveyors targeted locations where they were likely to encounter low-income individuals such as laundromats, food banks and low-income housing. The study used a cluster group design to assure collection of information about a broad cross-section of the lower income population, and to learn of disparate barriers to accessing the legal system faced by various demographic groups. The survey focused on 16 demographic groups as well as a control group of individuals who had none of these characteristics. At least 100 surveys of each group were sought and the overall survey results adjusted to reflect the demographic characteristics of the general population.
The Justice Gap survey was modeled on an American Bar Association design for a 1994 national study, as well as a modified version of that study used in Montana under the guidance of consultant D. Michael Dale. Data were tabulated by Portland State University. Recommendations based on the findings of this study have started and will continue to be implemented by “and Justice for all,” the newly formed Access to Justice Council, and the various legal service providers.
This report assessing the civil legal needs of low-income Utahns was undertaken to determine how to better serve this often overlooked portion of our society.
To further the goal of obtaining and presenting the most reliable data possible, every effort was made to be conservative in categorizing responses as “legal problems” or “issues,” so this report should be read keeping the overlay of “at least this many” in mind. While it provides significant and new information, it invites exploration of further questions in many areas.
From the state’s first legal aid program in Salt Lake County in 1922, Utah has continued to develop paid and pro bono programs to address the most pressing legal needs of those who cannot afford an attorney throughout the state. Yet, as indicated throughout this report, much work remains to be done.
Sixty-seven and one-half percent of low-income households in Utah will face a civil legal dispute this year. These households report an average of 1.28 legal problems per year. While 32.5% of households will have no legal problems this year, 46.6% will have two or more legal problems and 14.3% will have five or more legal problems.
A legal problem may consist of several issues, such as a family law problem that includes the issues of child custody, child support and a divorce.
Legal problems span a range of problems, with the most common being family law at 20.5% of all problems, employment at 12.3%, housing disputes at 12.1% and consumer issues at 9.8%.
Severity of Legal Problems. Close to nine in ten low-income households with legal problems felt their legal problems were important, with over half indicating their legal problems to be extremely important.
Analysis of Problems within Substantive Areas. The report also provides an analysis, within each issue area, of the relative frequency of those specific issues.
The Gap in Legal Assistance
All respondents reporting a legal problem were asked additional questions to find out how their households dealt with their legal needs. Overwhelmingly, the legal needs identified were not addressed with the assistance of counsel. Only 13% of households reported receiving help from an attorney, leaving 87% without help.
Only 18.4% of households that experienced legal needs sought legal help for their problems. Respondents with family law problems were the most likely to seek the help of an attorney, with 34.8% turning to an attorney; 22.9% to legal service programs; and 11.9% to the private bar.
While 18.4% of households looked for legal help, only 13% reported having received it. The kinds of problems for which representation was most likely were consumer and family law at 25.7% of low-income households. For other legal problems, fewer than 10% of households received legal assistance.
There were, however, large differences in the levels of service for various types of issues. For example, a household with a family law problem was much more likely to receive full legal representation than one with a housing issue.
Why Did so Few Respondents Obtain Legal Assistance & Where Did Unrepresented Households Turn For Help?
Respondents did not seek legal assistance for a variety of reasons. Nearly one-third did not know where to turn for help. Just over 22% felt it was too much hassle. Close to 21% did not seek help because they feared the cost. Almost 19% felt that nothing could be done about their problem, and about 17% did not perceive the problem to involve a legal issue.
Despite qualifying for assistance, only 23.6% of low-income households were aware of a free legal service program with large variations among groups. Shockingly, only 20.9% of households below 130% of the 2005 poverty level knew they were eligible for free legal help.
Resulting Attitudes of Household That Had Legal Problems
Only 26.8% of all households were satisfied with the outcome of their problems while 71.9% of those who received legal help indicated satisfaction.
Having legal help also had a significant effect on attitudes towards our legal system. Sixty-five percent of those with legal help who were satisfied with the outcome of their cases felt positive or very positive about the legal system, compared to only 20.9% for all respondents.
Differences in Legal Problems of Demographic Clusters
A significant finding of the survey is that certain demographic groups reported varying numbers of legal problems within different legal issues.
This survey also reflects differences in the number of legal problems and legal issues within the six regions of the state. Households in different regions of the state also have different frequencies of problems within common areas of the law. Further, households in some regions are also much less likely to be aware of legal service programs.
How Large is the Unmet Need for Legal Aid?
The survey found that there is an enormous need for legal services that is not being met – more than 80,320 cases each year. These are not trivial problems. Although a small number of those cases were not seen by the respondent to be important, over 94% of these cases were felt to be important (12%), very important (27%), or extremely important (55%).
It is important to remember that all the numbers in this report represent actual problems being faced by your fellow Utahns. These problems impact specific households and our community at large. Legal assistance programs help obtain and maintain income, jobs, and housing while increasing the quality of life for all residents and building civic faith in the legal system.
The data from this survey provides a wealth of information to help shape the legal aid delivery system in Utah. Significant conclusions suggested by the findings include:
Low-income Utah households face over 92,000 civil legal problems each year.
Over two out of every three low-income households in Utah will face a civil legal problem each year.
The civil legal help most needed by low-income Utahns are in the following order: family law, employment, housing, and consumer law.
Only 13% of very poor households report receiving legal help with their civil legal problems.
Households that receive legal assistance are much more likely to be satisfied with the outcome of their problems.
Households that receive legal assistance are much more likely to have a positive attitude about the legal system.
Many individuals are unaware of what issues can be resolved through the legal system.
The majority of low-income households facing civil legal problems are unaware of legal aid programs available to them or that they are financially eligible for these programs.
Low-income Utahns facing certain types of legal problems, such as consumer or family law issues, are more likely to receive help from an attorney than those facing, for example, an employment or housing issue.
Based on these findings, Utah Legal Services and “and Justice for all” offer the following recommendations to strengthen legal aid programs for low-income households:
1. Convene an Access to Justice Council to develop a statewide plan to address the unmet civil legal needs of low-income Utahns. Create a broad-based effort engaging stakeholders from private, government, religious and non-profit sectors to plan and implement effective programs and policies that increase access to justice for low-income Utahns.
2. Prioritize legal aid services with the most pressing needs of low-income Utahns taking into consideration barriers faced by specific demographic groups.
3. Employ a range of legal advocacy techniques including self-help, brief advice, community legal education and representation to create maximum impact with the smallest amount of resources.
4. Strengthen collaborative efforts within and outside of the legal community.
5. Develop increased resources to adequately address the legal needs of low-income Utahns.
6. Increase opportunities for pro bono attorneys to participate in meeting the legal needs of low-income Utahns. Evaluate which types of cases and levels of service are the most likely to appeal to pro bono attorneys and explore ways to remove barriers to attorneys accepting other types of cases.
7. Continue to strengthen service delivery models that allow legal assistance programs to reach all areas of the state from clinics to toll-free hotlines and web-based programs.
8. Increase outreach to low-income individuals and groups to help them understand when they have a legal problem and where to go for assistance. Develop specific plans to reach vulnerable populations who may face additional barriers.
9. Educate the general public about the impact legal aid programs have on our community.
10. Coordinate with other agencies that provide assistance to low-income individuals and households to create a holistic approach to solving problems.