UCL Health of the Public


Law & the social determinants of health

Law and legal services are involved in all major determinants of health, but their contribution has been largely overlooked in health inequalities discourse, policy and research.

Law and the social
The chances of a long and healthy life are crucially influenced by factors other than medical intervention, such as income, education, employment, and housing. Many health interventions fail to achieve their goals because they address symptoms rather than causes. It is now increasingly accepted that a strategic approach to improving public health and well-being involves addressing the upstream causes of downstream health problems. 

Law is arguably one of the most important social determinants of health, critically influencing the daily lives of individuals and populations. Many legal issues manifest as social determinants of health: homelessness, poor quality and unstable housing, financial hardship due to debt and welfare and benefits problems, among many others. These legal problems disproportionately affect low income and vulnerable groups and are therefore important contributors to health inequalities.

Free legal services can mitigate health-harming social and economic circumstances by securing critical entitlements, improving living conditions, avoiding or diverting threats to employment and family security, among many other functions.

For many reasons, disadvantaged and vulnerable people may not secure the benefits and services to which they are entitled under the law. Many people are not aware of what rights they might have and the processes for applying for benefits can be complex.  The removal of legal aid for social welfare problems has only exacerbated the challenges faced by underserved groups as free community legal services, capable of assisting people to access their  welfare rights, disappear.

Reaching vulnerable people when needed

When people have nowhere else to turn, they turn to someone they trust in times of need, such as their doctor, health visitor or practice nurse.  A GP surgery is often first place people seek help, for any problem.   

A significant proportion of GP consultations involve a social welfare legal problem that underlies the presenting health issue, so HJPs have the potential to improve patients’ health and reduce demands on health services.

People experiencing poor mental or physical health, those on low income and those with other vulnerabilities disproportionately have legal needs relating to accessing welfare benefits, long-term indebtedness, and adverse housing circumstances.