Civil Justice is Having a Moment

Civil Justice is Having a Moment

By: Amanda Brown, originally published by the Louisiana Bar Journal, April/May 2020

Across the globe, legal communities are wondering if the civil justice system is meeting the critical demands of those that need it – and the answer is a resounding “no.” In America, this renewed scrutiny is in large part thanks to a 2017 report published by the Legal Services Corporation (“LSC”) that put a microscope on the efficacy of legal profession and asked an important question – what is the “justice gap?” Or in plain terms, what is the gap in service between individuals that qualify for civil legal aid and those that don’t qualify, but still cannot afford an attorney?

The results were staggering.

The nation-wide Justice Gap Study found that 71% of low-income households in America experienced at least one civil legal problem the year prior to the survey. Of those, 86% received inadequate or no legal help. Importantly, as much as 20% of households never sought legal help for an issue - in part because they were unaware the issue was legal in nature. No matter which way we look at the results, one thing is clear: we have an access to justice crisis in our country.

A Renewed Energy

The Justice Gap Study was a seminal moment for civil justice in America. The boots-on-the-ground tasked with serving the underprivileged were already keenly aware of the problems the study highlighted. But this report was especially sobering for the rest of the profession.

Look around and you’ll see BigLaw prioritizing pro bono, with in-house legal departments following suit. You’ll see courts piloting innovative service delivery projects, creating more educated and engaged litigants. And you’ll see technologists and designers bringing creative problem solving to important issues like housing and homelessness, consumer debt, bankruptcy, and divorce. This action is evidence that the Justice Gap Study brought a renewed energy ensuring the justice system is accessible to all – not just some.

Much like the rest of the country, the Louisiana civil justice community is looking for creative ways to bridge the justice gap. Part of that effort is taking a data-driven approach to identifying the needs of our community, evaluating our effectiveness in meeting that need, and determining the financial value of our impact. Through two recently released studies, we’re building the case for more support for civil legal aid.

The updated Social Return on Investment study aims to highlight the incredible financial impact civil legal aid has on our state’s economy. Meanwhile, the first-ever formal Unmet Needs analysis conducted in Louisiana aims to document the frequency at which common civil issues are experienced by our community and most importantly – how often those needs go unmet.

Economic Impact + Social Return on Investment Study

Late last year, the Louisiana Bar Foundation tasked experts with evaluating more than 40 civil legal service providers to quantify the value civil legal aid brings to our state from a purely economic standpoint. The Social Return on Investment (“SROI”) calculation – though a bit abstract in concept – is a widely-accepted standard for measuring the social impact of an investment.

Calculating Impact

As you can imagine, measuring the impact of social services is challenging. ROIs are typically measured in dollars and cents – there’s nothing abstract about that. But many social services’ benefits extend beyond  monetary benefits and legal services are no exception.

Of course, in virtually every case a client derives some monetary value from a civil legal aid service. Most commonly, clients avoid the costs of a private attorney. They may also see financial gain via court settlements, awards, or other personal costs saved. But in many cases, the true impact of that service may take years to fully realize.

This is where traditional and social ROIs begin to diverge.

The first phase of this process requires measuring the value of the “Outputs” organizations deliver. According to researchers, the most accurate measurement basis for those outputs is the fair market value of the services being delivered, plus the value of benefit received during the immediate period. More plainly, what would it cost the community to acquire the same services if the service providers did not exist? And what immediate, tangible value did the client receive? The sum of these parts represents the “Immediate Net Direct Value of Services.”

Phase Two takes on the measurement of the long-term value of the services, or the “Outcomes” communities are likely to experience in the long run. This number is found by looking at things like savings in community support costs, reductions in community medical care expenses, additional community tax revenues from benefit programs, savings in housing and support costs for homeless families, and savings in community law enforcement, court systems, and other government agency costs. In the SROI equation, this value is coined the “Long-Term Net Consequential Value.”

Adding these figures and comparing them to the total tax-based funding for Louisiana civil legal aid operations – i.e., the number of dollars directed to the actual provision of legal services – leaves us with the social impact return on investment.

Consider the financial impact of an eviction case. In a typical eviction case, the Immediate Direct Value includes things like the value of the attorney’s services and the avoidance of fines and moving costs. Long-Term Consequential values might include money a community center saved in housing and support costs for that family that avoided homelessness.

It’s clear that legal services have a ripple effect into the community, saving dollars not just for the individuals but for programs that are otherwise tapped into in times of crisis. Evaluating both the immediate and long-term consequential financial benefit of legal services rendered shows us how substantially those programs support our economy.

Louisiana’s SROI

Much like the Justice Gap Study, the results of the 2018 SROI study were staggering:

For every $1 invested in civil legal aid, our economy sees a 913% return on investment.

According to data from over 40 participating legal service programs, Louisiana fielded 22,727 legal issues from the public in 2018. Their work gave Louisiana an immediate net direct value of $34,697,000, and over $60 million in long-term consequential value, yielding $95,124,000 worth of total net services provided. With just $10.4 million invested in civil legal services that year, we saw a 913% return on investment for those dollars.

Even if we only measure the direct value of civil legal services, our civil legal aid funders get excellent returns on their investments. This research proves what the justice community has known all along – the effects of civil legal aid are far reaching, and is a critical component of the health of our economy.

2018 Unmet Needs Study

On the heels of the LSC Justice Gap study, the Louisiana State Bar Association Access to Justice Committee felt it important to better understand the specific needs of our own community. This first-ever formal attempt to document unmet needs in our state gave Louisiana the unique opportunity to understand the pervasiveness of different civil legal issues and how people navigate these difficult challenges.

At 200% of the federal poverty level, a family of 4 can make no more than $50,200 per year. As much as 38% of Louisianans are living at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.

Using web-based surveys, researchers retained by the LSBA surveyed hundreds of individuals and family members across the state. To ensure the results were truly representative of those that would likely qualify for some type of free civil legal aid, survey participants largely fell at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.

Researchers then determined unmet needs by uncovering three main data-points, each one building upon on the last:

  • What percentage of people within the target population have experienced a civil legal issue?
  • Of those that had experienced a legal issue in the past, what specific issue-types did they face?
  • Of those issue-types, which were the most underserved?

In addition to web-based surveys, the researchers leveraged existing data from our direct legal aid providers that was collected to advance the previously mentioned LSC Justice Gap Study.

“Have you or an immediate family member ever needed legal help in Louisiana?”

To lay the foundation for this study, researchers had to know the answer to a simple question: how many survey participants have faced a civil legal problem? Of all takers, 54% of respondents said that they or a member of their family had a civil legal need in the past, with more than half of those having a civil legal problem within the past two years.

The remaining 46% of respondents identified as never having a civil legal need. A call-back to an important finding of the Justice Gap study means that, in reality, the number of individuals that have previously experienced a civil legal issue is at least moderately higher due to some individuals’ failure to identify a problem they have as legal.

Nonetheless, the 54% of survey participants that identified a previous civil legal issue then became the focus of the remainder of the study.

“In the last 2 years, which of these legal issues have you or any of your family members experienced?”

The next stop on the researchers’ journey to identifying the highest civil legal need was determining the different types of legal issues survey takers had faced. To accomplish this, the researchers broke down higher-level topics like “family law” or “employment law” into scenarios that more closely represented the way someone with that need would identify it. In all, over 65 descriptions of specific legal scenarios made up 11 high-level legal issues.

Topping the list of legal issue-types was Family Law, with 67% of participants indicating that they or a close family member had dealt with some type of family law issue in the last two years. As a disaster-prone state, it’s no surprise that Disaster Relief related issues came in second, having been experienced by 66% of survey takers – especially in light of the widespread flooding that occurred in 2016. Rounding out the top four issues in Louisiana were Employment (62%) and Consumer and Financial (56%) civil legal issues.   

“What did you do for legal help?”

To determine which legal issues went most underserved, the researchers asked participants to identify what action they took when faced with that problem. This creatively crafted question gives great insight into how people that do address their legal issues accomplish their goals. It also gives us a better understanding of the reasons why people in our community have unmet needs or otherwise have unresolved legal issues.  

This aspect of the study revealed that while fewer numbers of people experienced civil legal issues like healthcare, juvenile, education, immigration, and housing, those legal problems had the highest unmet need. In fact, over 60% of each of those legal issue types went unmet.

But even those legal issues that saw the greatest percentage of met needs fell short of our state’s lofty goal of 100% meaningful access to justice. For example, people with Consumer and Financial Legal Needs had the highest percentage of their needs met relative to other frequently experienced civil legal issues. Even so, only 59% of that population received some sort of assistance or otherwise had their needs met. The data show that this is largely because many people either cannot afford a lawyer and don’t qualify for legal aid (falling within the justice gap), do not know where to go for help, or simply decide to do nothing about the issue.

Join Us in Action

Each of these studies have already proven to be immensely valuable in making the case for civil legal aid.

At the state level, the SROI and Unmet Needs put a face to the “Justice Gap” name and were crucial in persuading the Louisiana State Legislature to reinstate appropriations for civil legal services for the upcoming year. Prior to this appropriation, civil legal services in Louisiana had gone over 10 years with funding, holding out as only one of four states in the country with no legislative support.

At the organizational level, these studies are allowing different players within the civil justice ecosystem to organize their efforts for greater impact. More data about the volume and severity of cases with unmet needs means organizations are better equipped to prioritize their efforts and focus collaboratively on the highest needs. The Unmet Needs study also gives us a clearer picture about the pathways people are taking to resolve their issues – giving us the opportunity to intercept individuals before they have need go unmet and provide them with some level of support.

At the individual level, we hope that you will join us in action.

Louisiana’s robust civil justice ecosystem offers an entire spectrum of opportunities with which you can get involved. If you’re looking for a primer on all things civil justice, consider into joining the LSBA Access to Justice Committee. There, you’ll get insights into the current challenges our civil justice community is tackling, finding opportunities to help research new methods and propose solutions.

If you’re ready to take your service to the next level, try joining your area Pro Bono Project or registering for the LSBA Modest Means Directory. The LSBA Modest Means Directory allows attorneys to provide full scale or limited scope representation to those in need at a reduced cost.

The LSBA’s new program, La. Free Legal Answers, is a powerful online forum that allows qualifying individuals to pose questions to attorneys, who provide anonymous legal information and advice. If influencing change through policy is your goal, become a member of Louisiana Appleseed or the Louisiana Bar Foundation and join their annual fellows’ class projects.

No matter what you choose, your contribution makes a difference. As these studies have shown, there is a critical mismatch between the needs of the most vulnerable among us and the services the legal community is providing. We are working hard to build a sustainable justice system that ensures access to all that need it, but we need your help scaling our impact and capitalizing on civil justice’s moment.

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