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Paths to Justice: reshaping the public's access to the judicial system

Paths to Justice (PTJ) is a landmark body of survey research that has transformed our understanding of, and government policy on, the legal needs of citizens

Hazel Genn - Access to Justice keynote

The project's impact has been both national and international, and it has led to:

  • 22 large-scale replications of the survey in 14 jurisdictions
  • Prioritisation of legal aid spending to meet evidence-based needs
  • Creation of legal aid services adapted to citizens’ needs
  • Understanding of the impact of lack of access to justice on health and social well-being
  • Implementation of public legal education (PLE) initiatives
  • Evidence-based public discourse about the value of legal aid in times of austerity

Background

In 1996, at a critical time of civil justice reform and proposed changes to legal aid, Professor Dame Hazel Genn, UCL Laws Professor of Socio-Legal Studies, was commissioned to conduct a landmark national survey of public experiences of the justice system. 

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, Professor Genn carried out the research in England and Wales between 1996 and 1998, and PTJ was published in 1999. Adopting a pioneering approach to legal needs research, Professor Genn created the concept of the “justiciable problem” (disputes that might have a legal solution) and asked:

  • What are the justiciable problems the public face?
  • What do they do about them?
  • What happens when they cannot access good advice?

There were two key findings. Firstly, that the experience of justiciable problems is widespread, but the most common problems involve debt, consumer matters, disputes with landlords or neighbours, and employment problems.

Secondly, that problems often “cluster” together with identifiable ‘trigger’ events producing a cascade of further problems. This phenomenon points to a critical need for targeted early advice and intervention.

Since the publication of PTJ, Professor Genn has presented the research methods and findings to justice policy advisers, judges and third sector advisers in the UK and around the world.

Impact

The PTJ research transformed thinking and public debate on access to justice in the UK and around the world. Countries to adopt the PTJ approach include Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Scotland, Moldova, Netherlands, Taiwan, and Ukraine.

This impact has also been felt in the following areas:

Spending prioritisation

Legal aid policy has changed to reflect a greater targeting of those most in need, outreach to hard-to-help groups, joining-up of legal and non-legal services, and early intervention to prevent problem escalation. In Australia, PTJ surveys have influenced the development of the Attorney-General’s 2009 Strategic Framework for Access to Justice and the on-going development of client-centred services.

Redesigning existing legal aid services

Responding to PTJ identification of problem clustering, a strategic priority of the English Legal Services Commission (LSC) from 2006 to 2010 was establishing Community Legal Advice Centres and Networks (CLACs and CLANs) that would be a model for delivery of ‘combined social welfare services’. By 2010 five had been established (four during 2008–9 in Hull, Leicester, Derby, and Portsmouth) and evaluated as offering significant benefits to the community.

Public legal education (PLE) initiatives

PTJ results underpinned the development of PLE in the UK and abroad, leading to the establishment in 2008 of a Ministerial PLE Strategy Group, and in 2010 the creation of Law For Life, a charity that “equips ordinary people with the knowledge, confidence and skills that they need to deal effectively with everyday law-related issues”.

Changes to access to justice discourse in UK and abroad 

Paths to Justice and its tradition of surveys produced a fundamental shift in justice policy thinking from a focus on lawyers and courts to a “client focus” where policy is designed to meet the needs of the public. From 2010–13, when the Coalition government sought to cut legal aid, PTJ research findings were frequently used by opposition politicians and the advice sector as important evidence for preserving legal aid funding.

Publications
  • Pleasence, P., Balmer, N. Sandefur, R. (2013) Paths to Justice: A Past, Present and Future Roadmap, rigorously peer reviewed report prepared under Nuffield Foundation grant AJU/39100. Pleasence and Balmer were former Legal Services Commission employees; and the stakeholder interviews, analysis and writing up were done by Sandefur, University Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. http://bit.ly/1fd53GG
  • Balmer, N. (2013) Summary Findings of Wave 2 of the English and Welsh Civil and Social Justice Panel Survey, Legal Services Commission. http://bit.ly/17xKDpw
  • Coumeralos, C. et al (2012) Legal Australia-Wide Survey: Legal Need in Australia. Sydney: Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales. http://bit.ly/1j8W7zz [PDF]
  • Currie, A. (2009) The Incidence of Problems in Civil Matters in Canada: Three National Surveys in 2004, 2006 and 2008. Ottawa: Department of Justice. Available on request.
  • Asia Consulting Group and Policy 21 (2008) Consultancy Study on the Demand for and Supply of Legal and Related Services, Hong Kong: Department of Justice. http://bit.ly/17XaSGn
  • Chen, K., et al (2012) The Legal Problems of Everyday Life: The Nature, Extent and Consequences of Justiciable Problems Experienced by Taiwanese. Paper presented at the 2012 Law and Society Annual Conference, 8 July 2012. http://bit.ly/1j8VHsW [PDF]
  • Legal Services Commission, Strategic Plan 2008–11: Transforming Legal Aid. Available on request. 8) Australian Government Attorney General’s Department, A Strategic Framework for Access to Justice in the Federal Civil Justice System, September 2009 http://bit.ly/1774RUu [PDF]
  • Fox, C., Moorhead, R., Sefton, M. & Wong, K. (2010), Community Legal Advice Centres and Networks: A Process Evaluation http://bit.ly/189Lg6X [PDF]
  • Buck, A., Smith, M. et al (2010), Piecing it Together: Exploring One-Stop Shop Legal Service Delivery in Community Legal Advice Centres, Legal Services Commission. http://bit.ly/1atKJMM [PDF]
  • Scottish Government, (2010) The Experience of Civil Law Problems in Scotland, http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2010/11/15095623/2
  • Lord Hart of Chilton, Civil Legal Aid Debate in House of Lords, 19 May 2011 [302pm Col. 1545] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldhansrd/text/110519-0002.htm
  • Law for Life programme (2010). Launch speech by Lord Bach, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice, ‘Public Legal Education: Improving lives, empowering communities’, http://bit.ly/1aXg659
  • Statement provided by Former Chief Research Advisor and Principal Researcher: Legal Aid and Access to Justice, in the Canadian Federal Department of Justice corroborates the influence of PTJ on his national survey and direct impact of results on policy.