A DU study finds that justice eludes millions of Americans

A blindfolded woman wields a sword in one hand and dangles a set of scales in the other, in statuary symbolizing justice at courthouses around the world.

Yet in a nation that prides itself on “justice for all,” the number of Americans who don’t have their legal problems resolved satisfactorily is startling.

The dire nature of this problem is now made irrefutable by data revealed in “Justice Needs and Satisfaction in the United States of America,” an in-depth report from the University of Denver’s Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), in concert with the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law.

The survey was launched to deepen understanding of U.S. justice needs and to provide an evidentiary basis for making needed reforms, says Logan Cornett, research director for IAALS.

What’s more, says Brittany Kauffman, senior director of IAALS, “Recent studies surveyed just those of lower income. We really felt, based on past work, the problem is much wider and deeper.”

The two-year project surveyed more than 10,000 Americans—from every region, ethnicity, age, gender and income level. It found that, over a four-year period ending in fall 2020, 66% of respondents had one or more legal issues. 

Only 49% of those problems were fully resolved. What’s more, in their search for justice, the average American had to tap several sources, from the internet, friends and family to lawyers, insurance companies and police. 

“For me, the surprise is that there are so many paths to justice in society,” Kauffman says. “People think it all happens in the courthouse. [But] the study found almost 1,000 ways people resolved their legal problems. It reminds all of us that there are informal paths to justice. We need to meet people where they are.”

Justice isn’t equally distributed, leaving pockets of people severely underserved, the study notes. 

Most vulnerable are people of color, older age groups and those with a lower household income. Although such groups as Legal Aid and the Legal Services Corp. focus on very low-income groups, many people with legal problems don’t qualify for their help, Kauffman notes.

While low-income Americans do find justice difficult to access, they’re far from alone. 

“The focus has historically been on meeting the legal needs of those with low income, who have trouble accessing an expensive, complicated and outdated legal system. But there is far more going on beneath the surface. … People of all socioeconomic backgrounds face problems every day with unclear paths to resolution,” IAALS reports. 

The most common legal issues are family matters, public benefits, land, money and personal injury, the survey shows.

Only 14% of respondents sought help from the courts. They either considered their issue minor, thought it wasn’t a legal matter, found a different path to resolution or thought the courts process wasn’t worth the effort.

So what sort of solutions could ameliorate the shortage of justice?

Cornett cites a range of possible innovations, many of them already being implemented in the West. 

Colorado, for example, is working to license paraprofessionals to provide some legal services. 

Utah, a ringleader in judicial reforms, launched an Office of Legal Services Innovation, which created a way for untraditional providers to deliver legal services. After meeting the agency’s requirements, these providers can offer end-of-life planning; business matters related to intellectual property, contracts and warranties; and marriage and family services. They can also help with real estate transactions and issues arising from domestic violence and immigration. 

Arizona, meanwhile, has created a “legal paraprofessional” category for non-lawyers, allowing them to “provide legal services without the supervision of an attorney,” the American Bar Association reports. These paraprofessionals must pass a test in the several specialties covered by this initiative.  

Kauffman expects other states to soon follow suit, fostering innovations that align with their particular challenges. In the meantime, Western states are blazing the trail, a phenomenon that may be traced to the relative youth of the region’s institutions. 

“We see this innovation abound,” Kauffman says. “We hope this research serves as fuel for these efforts, both in the West and nationwide, so as to support the development of scalable solutions to address this crisis.”

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