One of the core practices of public legal education is to undertake a substantial assessment of the needs of the intended users of a resource or service or of participants in an initiative. There are a range of ways of carrying out those assessments, some more formal than others. They include conducting surveys, interviewing key informants, conducting focus groups, reviewing job descriptions, and observing prospective users operating in their own contexts. Some needs assessments are also more comprehensive than others, addressing needs that include learning preferences, effective communication channels, timeliness of information delivery, as well as the actual legal content that might be appropriate. Even the nature of that content, the skills needed to engage with it, and the attendant legal processes may be the subjects of investigation. A few studies also consider the affective dimension of dealing with the particular legal matter and any relevant ethical matters.
Not all needs assessments conducted by PLE organizations result in a document recording the findings. Rather, PLE staff members may immerse themselves in the community being served and learn as much as possible in the time available in the project.
Legal Needs studies
The types of needs assessments referred to above differ significantly from the larger legal needs studies that have been conducted in more than 15 jurisdictions, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. They are population-wide surveys of the types of everyday legal matters that respondents indicate they have had to deal with. The studies make the point that some groups of people experience multiple legal problems, many of which they fail to resolve.
These studies also highlight a number of barriers to accessing appropriate assistance, including the ways research participants went about seeking advice and solving problems, and their frequent inability to properly characterize their problems and understand their legal aspects
Access to Justice and Legal Needs, Legal Australia-wide Survey: Legal Needs in Australia contains a useful discussion of some of the issues in carrying out this type of study. Those studies have been subject to academic scrutiny and criticism.
Population-wide legal needs studies have been carried on in the following countries:
- Australia (Coumarelos et al. 2006)
- Bulgaria (Gramatikov 2008)
- Canada (Currie)
- China (Michelson 2007a, 2007b)
- England and Wales
- Germany (Hommerich & Kilian 2007)5
- Hong Kong (Hong Kong Department of Justice (HKDOJ) 2008)
- Japan (Murayama 2007, 2008)
- the Netherlands (van Velthoven & Klein Haarhuis 2010; van Velthoven & ter Voert 2004)
- New Zealand (Ignite Research 2006; Maxwell, Smith, Shepherd & Morris 1999)
- Northern Ireland (Dignan 2006)
- Slovakia (cited in Hadfield 2010).
- United States
(References are from the Australian report and “Paths to Justice: A Past, Present and Future Roadmap”.)
One of the early lessons of PLE is that there really is not such thing as ‘the general public’. Rather there are numerous ‘publics’ to which PLE resources and services are directed. Work with respect to the needs of several publics are listed next. However, Ab Currie’s study of the everyday legal needs of Canadians provides a scan of many legal issues that Canadians face.
In the early years of PLE, we had to assure critics that we were not trying to turn people into their own lawyers. After all, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and you certainly wouldn’t try to perform your own brain surgery. With the prohibitive costs of legal services putting access to justice at risk for numerous people, PLE has been called upon to help people represent themselves on a variety of legal matters.
Youth were early publics of interest to PLE providers. Programs addressed youth both in school settings and in extracurricular activities. School programs tended to address law-related topics in the curriculum but extracurricular activities usually reflected needs identified by a sponsoring organization.
Needs of service providers
In the early years of public legal education in Canada, PLE providers recognized that they would not be able to meet all the legal education needs of the entire population. Moreover, some segments of the public would be much more difficult to reach than others, whether by virtue of the physical isolation, language or educational limitations, psychological barriers, to name only a few of the challenges PLE providers would need to address.
To broader the reach of their organizations, PLE providers adopted an ‘intermediary’ strategy. PLE would educate third parties that the more difficult to reach publics turn to for help with legal or other problems. In some jurisdictions the term ‘trusted intermediaries’ has be adopted to reflect the important relationships that people have in their families, faith communities, or public or service agencies. Appealing as the term is, it is important not to lose sight of the importance of anonymity for many people in accessing knowledge, resources, and services they need.
Needs of non-profit organizations and charities
Little formal work has been done to assess the legal needs of non-profit organizations and charities. However, three workbooks on legal and ethical issues of non-profit organizations published by The Muttart Foundation are the result of extensive consultations with leaders of the non-profit sector in Alberta: Organizing your corporate documents, Understanding your corporate documents, and Operating according to your policies which are available at www.muttart.org/publications/board-development-workbooks.
Resources of Interest: Needs assessments
Documents of Interest
Nicole Aylwin and Mandi Gray, Selected Annotated Bibliography of Legal Needs Studies
Trevor C.W. Farrow, Ab Currie, Nicole Aylwin, Les Jacobs,
David Northrup and Lisa Moore, Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada – Overview Report. . Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, Toronto, Canada, 2016.
Pascoe Pleasence, Nigel J Balmer and Rebecca L Sandefur, “Paths to Justice: A Past, Present and Future Roadmap.” UCL Centre for Empirical Legal Studies (2013): 4.