PULS Volume 1 shows gaps in how people understand and engage with the law

Today Victoria Law Foundation launched the first report from the ground-breaking research project - the Public Understanding of Law Survey (PULS).

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Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Volume 1: Everyday Problems and Legal Need, explores how everyday legal problems are experienced, what people do about them and if they are resolved. These problems cover a whole range of issues people face in their lives, including those with goods and services, housing, fines, employment, family, government, debt and injury.

Everyday legal problems are exactly that. 42% of respondents reported one or more problems which equates to 6.4 million problems when applied across the Victorian population. The data showed consumer issues with goods or services were the most common, followed by problems with housing, fines, and employment. Problems also cluster and spread – the more problems people have, the more likely they are to have further problems.

While problems were very common, they could be among the most challenging episodes in people’s lives, and their impact could be profound. Twenty per cent of Victorians reported that their problem led to damage to relationships, ill-health, or being harassed, threatened or assaulted, and over 70% experienced stress because of the problem.

Problems were also hard to shake off. While half concluded after nine months, almost 30% of problems were ongoing after five years, with less and less prospect of concluding month on month.

Experience was strongly linked to disadvantage. The PULS found far higher prevalence for some groups including people with disability, people experiencing poor mental health, those in financial distress or people who had been through a natural disaster like the 2019-20 bushfires.

‘We found that disadvantage can play a huge part in the clustering and duration of legal problems. We know that disadvantage can bring with it a range of issues and the data tells us that problems have a longer and more severe impact with these cohorts,’ said VLF Research Director, Nigel Balmer.

Despite the volume and severity of the problems, only 34% of people thought of their issue as legal. This is critical, because identifying your issue as legal informed what you did about it. Not characterising problems as legal typically meant not seeking legal advice.

‘Knowing that the problem you have may be a legal one is the first step in seeking the right help or advice. Getting the right help to resolve many common legal problems requires change: to improving people’s legal understanding, what kinds of help are available, and pathways to access advice. This is access to justice,’ Professor Balmer said.

Respondents obtained independent advice (legal and or non-legal) for around half the number of problems, with just over 20% of all problems resulting in respondents going to a legal service. Health, financial status and location played a part in both how help was sought and how long it takes to resolve a legal problem.

‘We know these everyday problems can cause disruption, stress, and create legal and financial issues. Understanding what people experience and having evidence on how to make a difference is critical - to the people with problems, the agencies which support them, and the governments which fund them,’ said Lynne Haultain, Executive Director of the VLF.

The data also showed that there is a clear mismatch between the help people need and what they are getting, with 78% of people with legal need, having that need unmet.

This mismatch points to a need for broader reform in policy and service, to help people identify the legal aspects of problems and improve the rates and speed of resolution.

Visit the PULS website to read more about the key findings and download the full report.

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The Public Understanding of Law Survey (PULS) is ground-breaking research to understand legal capability, attitudes, and experience of the law in Victoria.

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