Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

Rebecca L. Sandefur

Research output: Working paper


A new study of the civil justice experiences of the American public, the Community Needs and Services Study, finds widespread incidence of events and situations that have civil legal aspects, raise civil legal issues and are potentially actionable under civil law. Most are handled outside the context of the formal justice system. These events are common and can be severe in their impacts. People experiencing these situations typically do not receive assistance from lawyers or other formal third parties.

In 2013, two-thirds (66%) of a random sample of adults in a middle-sized American city reported experiencing at least one of 12 different categories of civil justice situations in the previous 18 months. For the whole sample, the average number of situations was 2.1; for people who reported situations, the average number reported was 3.3. The most commonly reported kinds of situations involved bread and butter issues with far-reaching impacts: problems with employment, money (finances, government benefits, debts), insurance, and housing. Poor people were more likely to report civil justice situations than were middle-income or high-income people. African Americans and Hispanics were more likely to report such situations than Whites.

People reported that almost half (47%) of the civil justice situations they experienced resulted in a significant negative consequence such as feelings of fear, a loss of income or confidence, damage to physical or mental health, or verbal or physical violence or threats of violence. Adverse impacts on health were the most common negative consequence, reported for 27% of situations.

Typically, people handled these situations on their own. For only about a fifth (22%) of situations did they seek assistance from a third party outside their immediate social network, such as a lawyer, social worker, police officer, city agency, religious leader or elected official. When people who did not seek any assistance from third parties outside their social circles were asked if cost was one barrier to doing so, they reported that concerns about cost were a factor in 17% of cases. A more important reason that people do not seek assistance with these situations, in particular assistance from lawyers or courts, is that they do not understand these situations to be legal.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Number of pages17
StatePublished - Aug 10 2014


  • Access to Justice
  • Civil Justice


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