While technology and the way information is available to people have changed markedly since the Legal Australia-Wide (LAW) Survey was conducted in 2008, this paper reports important evidence concerning Australians’ use of self-help resources (SHRs) for legal problems at that time based on new analysis of LAW Survey data. The findings show links between the use and helpfulness of SHRs, and the resolution and outcomes of legal problems.
LAW Survey respondents only used SHRs for 20 per cent of legal problems, and rarely were they the only type of assistance or action. When used, SHRs were rated as helpful for only 60 per cent of legal problems. SHRs were typically one of a number of strategies people adopted in seeking to address their legal problems. This suggests SHRs should be viewed as a complementary, rather than alternative, stand-alone service strategy. Well-designed SHRs, integrated with and complementing other types of assistance, however, may well be more than the sum of their parts. People who used SHRs for one problem tended to do so for other problems and people who found SHRs helpful for one problem tended to find them helpful for others.
A minority of people appear capable of effectively using SHRs – as one of several potential sources of help – to resolve legal problems. Use of SHRs was associated with increased use of formal advisers and other actions. This is the first research showing that obtaining ‘helpful’ SHRs can improve Australians’ reported legal problem outcome satisfaction and favourability. Reported outcomes are also improved when the main adviser provides pre-packaged legal information. These findings support investment in SHRs as a component of an effective legal assistance service strategy, at least for some types of legal problems and some people.
Many other people are less capable of effectively using SHRs, and typically don’t use them, don’t find them helpful, or don’t achieve satisfactory and favourable outcomes. The evidence therefore suggests a cautious approach to SHRs as a stand-alone legal assistance service strategy.
Further research is needed into what makes SHRs ‘helpful’ – for different types of users and legal problems – and how to facilitate access to quality, useful SHRs. Digital technology is one obvious strategy. The findings, however, indicate that uptake and effectiveness will vary by both legal problem and user demographic characteristics. Digital SHRs may be more effective as a strategy to enhance access to justice and better meet the legal needs of the ‘missing middle’ than as a substitute for legal advice for public legal assistance clients.
More nuanced understanding of how personal legal capability intersects with digital capability is also needed. This appears key to realising any substantial gains from ‘digital transformation’, to the design of SHRs that ‘work’, and to effectively gauge and monitor access to justice impact. We need to learn more about ‘what works’, for whom and for what, to better meet the diverse legal need and capability of all Australians.