Release date
August 30, 2023
Nigel J. Balmer
Pascoe Pleasence
Hugh M. McDonald
Rebecca L. Sandefur


The Public Understanding of Law Survey (PULS) is ground-breaking research to help us better understand legal capability, attitudes and experience of the law in the Victorian community. 

The PULS is a large-scale face-to-face survey exploring how people understand, experience and navigate law and everyday life problems with a legal dimension (‘justiciable’ problems). It is made up of a predominantly face-to-face sample of 6,008 respondents across Victoria employing the best survey methods available to yield the highest quality data. 

This report is the first of three volumes. It explores legal need in Victoria, how justiciable problems are experienced, what people do about them and how they progress and conclude.  

The second volume of the PULS report provides an overview of levels of a range of different dimensions of legal capability across the Victorian population. It also explores the sociodemographic factors associated with different levels of legal capability.

The third volume of the PULS report draws upon the full PULS survey dataset to investigate more fully the drivers of problem resolving behaviour and problem outcomes, by incorporating the new legal capability measures into the statistical models of problem resolving behaviour and outcome reported in this volume.

Key Findings

The analysis in the report looks at key areas explored through the questionnaire in the survey and reveals some notable insights set out below.

Problems are everywhere

42% of the PULS respondents had problems. This equates to 6.4 million problems across the adult population of Victoria.

Justiciable problems are not rare events presided over by courts, they are commonplace and interwoven into lives. We are all going to experience these – they are unavoidable.

Problems are every day, but not everyday

Justiciable problems are common, but often anything but mundane. They can be among the most challenging and traumatic episodes in people’s lives.

Problems don’t occur in isolation, they lead on from one another, extend to wider social problems and are inextricably linked to disadvantage. Their impact is significant and the knock-on costs to public services and individuals huge.

Problems multiply

Most people who have problems have more than one, and a high percentage have large clusters of problems.

There is a positive feedback loop – the more problems you have the more likely you are to have further problems. And the links to disadvantage grow stronger still.

For example, almost half of those who were unable to eat, heat or cool their home in the past 12 months because of a shortage of money reported five or more justiciable problems.

Problems are hard to shake off

The PULS is the first detailed examination of justiciable problem duration in Australia.

It found that while 50 per cent of problems end after 9 months, almost 30 per cent remain ongoing after five years. And the longer problems go on, the less likely they are to end.

Problems are really hard to shake off

Some problems such as those related to debt or money, government or public services and particularly family problems tended to last longer.

Some groups, such as those in outer regional or remote areas, those with a long-term illness or disability, those reporting mental distress and those unable to eat, heat or cool their home in the past 12 months because of a shortage of money tended to report longer, more intractable problems.

Disasters and emergencies

Those affected by the 2019-2020 bushfires were more likely to have problems, had more problems (of all types), longer problems, more severe problems, and greater use of services (legal and non-legal).

However, despite markedly different experience, they rarely linked or attributed their justiciable problems to bushfires. Disaster response will become more necessary, need to last longer, and need to reflect how people understand their problems.

Responding to problems

Paths to justice are not always easy to follow. The problem strategy people adopted, related to who they were and the type of problem they faced.

Use of the internet to address justiciable problems is growing fast – almost half of those with problems turned to it for support – and changing in character.

Obtaining legal advice

Compared to most legal need surveys, the percentage obtaining legal advice appeared relatively high, with a fairly even split between public and private practice.

Looking beyond legal advice

‘Non-legal’ services – including government or council bodies, organisations linked to work, professional and health services, dispute resolution bodies, community organisations etc – play a critical role.

In addition, more than half of those obtaining legal advice also used a ‘non-legal’ service. Numerically, more respondents had legal need met by ‘non-legal’ than legal services. Such services can be better positioned for some groups, through their community engagement and way in which they frame services.

Not getting any advice

Not everyone needs or wants independent advice, with half of respondents either doing nothing, handling things on their own or seeking informal help.

Among those who did not obtain advice, 30 per cent gave a concerning rationale, such as not knowing where to get help, or being fatalistic as to its value.

Everyday legal problems are not seen as legal

People do not typically see the justiciable problems they face as legal, with only 34 per cent characterised as such. And if you don’t see your problem as legal, you are far less likely to have sought legal advice.

Legal characterisation was far less of an obstacle to non-legal advice seeking.

Capturing legal need, met and unmet

The PULS takes a major step forward in capturing legal need, adopting OECD/OSF (2019) approaches. This means considering problem duration, problem seriousness, legal awareness/understanding, legal confidence, process fairness, expert help, and adequacy of support to assess whether or not legal need existed, and where it did, whether or not it was met.

This is a critical step, acknowledging that not all justiciable problems are legal needs, not all legal advice means legal need, not all legal advice meets legal needs.

What legal need goes unmet

Where legal need existed, 78 per cent went unmet. Unmet need was the norm not the exception. Where legal need goes unmet, there is no access to justice.

Unmet need was particularly high for problems with debt or money, employment or family, and for some groups, such as First Nations respondents, single parents, those not working because of health, seeking work, or at home caring for family, those reporting severe mental distress, lowest income respondents, and those unable to eat, heat or cool home in the past 12 months because of a shortage of money

Legal advice meets legal needs, right?

Seeking legal advice meant more legal need, but not more being met. The majority of those who obtained legal advice still had unmet legal need (based on the OECD/OSF (2019) taxonomy). This was due to advice that was insufficient, problems persisting, or both. Use of formal process was also associated with high unmet legal need.

Problems where people seek legal advice are likely to be more severe, complex and intractable, but this remains a huge volume of unmet legal need.

Implications and way forward

The mismatch

Volume 1 of the PULS uses gold-standard survey methods and the latest thinking in legal need and legal capability to explore how the Victorian public experience and respond to justiciable problems. It shows a clear mismatch between what people need and what they are getting.

Diverse causes and consequences of problems and unmet legal need call for multiple responses. No individual organisation or solution can fix the issues the PULS highlights.

Bringing core issues into sharp relief

The PULS points to a need for broader reform.

A significant volume of advice was obtained outside the traditional legal services sector, and almost half obtained information from the internet, where the boundary between generic information and bespoke advice is becoming increasingly blurred.

The PULS points to challenges and opportunities for regulation in encouraging innovative/better practice, broadening alternatives for legal advice, reassessing definitions of information and advice, and maintaining a structural, regulated and protected approach (Mayson, 2022).

Getting this right could provide a route to addressing barriers to advice and issues with its adequacy. It will require justice professionals to ‘share the quest for solutions with others: other disciplines, other problem-solvers, and other members of the public whom the justice system is meant to serve.’ (Sandefur, 2021).

Beyond counting beans

Unmet legal need is routine, even when people obtain legal advice. People are not getting what they need.

The PULS can tell you a lot but needs to be supplemented with more information on clients, their journeys to, through and beyond services, and the ‘outcomes’ they get (McDonald and Haultain, 2023).

This includes whether problems concluded, whether they concluded satisfactorily, and whether assistance was adequate. These are the core barriers to having legal needs met.

There is a system-wide need for smarter data – data that goes beyond administrative. Data that enables performance to be monitored with greater nuance. Such data would allow the impact of change to be quantified, and services to be better tailored to need.

Looking ahead

This is the first volume of the PULS and only a starting point. There is much more to come in volumes 2 and 3.

In the context of legal services, the first volume of the PULS highlights a mismatch between what people need and what they get. For services to best mirror needs, they need to reflect people’s capabilities. That means capturing people’s capabilities. In Volume 2 and Volume 3, legal capability will become the main focus.


Everyday Problems and Legal Need

Release date
August 30, 2023
Nigel J. Balmer
Pascoe Pleasence
Hugh M. McDonald
Rebecca L. Sandefur
Cover of the PULS volume 1 report

Learn more about the PULS

Understand the background of the PULS and learn more about the purpose and value of the project.
Understanding PULS