The Public Understanding of Law Survey (PULS) <sup><a id="note-1" href="#ref-1" class="rich-text-reference-link">1</a></sup> defined single parents as people who at the time of completing the survey, reported themselves as being single and as having children (under the age of 18), that they reported to be living with.<sup><a id="note-2" href="#ref-2" class="rich-text-reference-link">2</a></sup>

Of the 6,008 PULS respondents, 340 (5.7%) were single parents.


Past research demonstrates that family status is one factor that drives inequality in legal problem experience.<sup><a id="note-3" href="#ref-3" class="rich-text-reference-link">3</a></sup> Single parents are a demographic group that have been identified as being particularly vulnerable to experiencing multiple substantial legal problems.<sup><a id="note-4" href="#ref-4" class="rich-text-reference-link">4</a></sup> The Law Foundation of NSW’s Legal Australia-Wide (LAW) Survey found that irrespective of age and gender, single parents were the family type that had the highest prevalence of legal problems.<sup><a id="note-5" href="#ref-5" class="rich-text-reference-link">5</a></sup> This included single parents living with and without their child.

The findings of the PULS align with past research and confirm that access to justice remains a significant issue for single parents.

Experience of the law

Experience of justiciable problems

The PULS focuses on people’s experience of problems that are ‘justiciable’. This refers to problems arising in people’s lives that raise legal issues, even though they might not necessarily recognise them as legal.<sup><a id="note-6" href="#ref-6" class="rich-text-reference-link">6</a></sup>

Single parents experienced justiciable problems more frequently than other PULS survey respondents as a whole. Of the 340 single parents surveyed, 49.8% of them reported experiencing one or more justiciable problems. This compared to only 42% for PULS respondents overall.

Single parents disproportionately experience family problems and problems relating to government payments. Prevalence of family problems was extremely high for single parents, with 18.9% reporting experience of family problems compared to only 3.2% of parents that are married, and 11.3% of parents in a de facto relationship. Twelve per cent of single parents reported experiencing government payment problems, which was higher than for parents in de facto relationships (at 10.4%), and far higher than for married parents (at 3.2%).

Multiple problem experience

Single parents are more likely to experience multiple justiciable problems. Thirteen per cent of single parents surveyed reported having five or more justiciable problems. Only 6.5% of all PULS respondents reported experiencing five or more problems.

Level of mental distress (K6)% one or more problems by

Twenty-seven per cent of single parents who reported experiencing one or more problems, reported having five or more problems. This was similar to that for parents in de facto relationships and was far higher than for single people without children and married people with or without children.

Another way to illustrate the relationship is to explore the percentage of single parents among those with no problems, one, two, three, four or five or more problems. Single parents make up a larger percentage of those with more problems, as depicted in Figure 1.

Previous legal needs surveys demonstrate how justiciable problems can compound and/or create additional legal and related problems.<sup><a id="note-7" href="#ref-7" class="rich-text-reference-link">7</a></sup> For example, likelihood of experiencing further problems increases with experience of each additional problem. Having more problems to deal with can also make it increasingly difficult to resolve them, and contribute to a cycle of disadvantage.

Responding to problems

Single parents obtained legal advice for 32.3% of problems, obtained independent help for 22.9%, and handled their problems alone (or solely with informal help from family and friends) for a further 37.7% of problems.

Four per cent of all survey respondents did nothing in response to their problems.<sup><a id="note-8" href="#ref-8" class="rich-text-reference-link">8</a></sup> It is of concern that single parents did nothing to resolve their problems at a much higher rate (7.1%). Notably, single parents were over- represented amongst those who took no action in response to experiencing justiciable problems. By comparison, only 4.5% of married parents, and 2.9% of de facto parents, took no action. Of the 16 single parents who did nothing, 14 of them (87.5%) had five or more problems. Overall, amongst all PULS respondents who did nothing to resolve their main problem, only 48.5% had five or more problems.

This points to single parents being at greater risk of doing nothing, which may be due to experiencing a higher volume of problems.

In addition, the PULS demonstrates that, overall, people were less likely to perceive the outcome and process as fair when they did nothing to resolve their problem. This is of particular concern given the above finding that single parents took no action in response to their problem, at higher rates than others.

Problem duration

The justiciable problems experienced by single parents are more likely to last longer than the problems experienced by other parents who are married or in a defacto relationships. Of the problems experienced by single parents, 39% of them were ongoing after 5 years, much longer than for parents that were married and parents in de facto relationships (at 22.2% and 31.5% respectively).

Legal needs, met and unmet

Adopting the OECD/OSF framework for measuring legal need, the PULS categorised justiciable problems in three categories: where there was no legal need; a legal need which was unmet; and a legal need which was met.<sup><a id="note-9" href="#ref-9" class="rich-text-reference-link">9</a></sup>

The problems reported by single parents were more likely to involve a legal need, compared to PULS respondents overall (78.5% of problems compared to 62.5%).

Of further concern, rates of unmet legal need were far higher amongst single parents (69.5% of problems) compared to all respondents (48.5%). Single parents also had a lower percentage of problems where legal needs were met (8.9% of their problems compared to 14.0% for all survey respondents). These findings clearly signal single parents face significant access to justice barriers.

Key takeaways

In comparison to the general population at large, single parents are more likely to:

  • experience justiciable problems (particularly family problems and problems relating to government payments)
  • experience higher numbers of multiple problems simultaneously
  • take no action to resolve their justiciable problems and be less likely to perceive the outcome of the problem as fair
  • have problems that are persistent and longer lasting
  • have their legal needs unmet.

End Notes

<sup><a id="ref-1" href="#note-1" class="rich-text-note-link">1</a></sup> Balmer, N.J., Pleasence, P., McDonald, H.M. & Sandefur,R.L. (2023). The Public Understanding of Law Survey (PULS) Volume 1: Everyday Problems and Legal Need. Melbourne: Victoria Law Foundation. The full report can be found at https://puls.

<sup><a id="ref-2" href="#note-2" class="rich-text-note-link">2</a></sup> This included:biological, foster, step, adopted children, relative and kinship care. See Balmer N.J., Pleasence, P., McDonald,H.M. & Sandefur, R.L. (2022). ThePublic Understanding of Law Survey (PULS) Annotated Questionnaire.Melbourne: Victoria Law Foundation.

<sup><a id="ref-3" href="#note-3" class="rich-text-note-link">3</a></sup> Maldonado, L.C. & Nieuwenhuis, R. (2019). Single parents in context. Future Child, 5, 75-96

<sup><a id="ref-4" href="#note-4" class="rich-text-note-link">4</a></sup> Law and Justice Foundation of NSW. (2013). Legal needs of single parents in New South Wales. Updating Justice, 18, 1-2.

<sup><a id="ref-5" href="#note-5" class="rich-text-note-link">5</a></sup> Law and Justice Foundation of NSW. (2016). Meeting the greater legal needs of single parents. Updating Justice, 51, 1-8

<sup><a id="ref-6" href="#note-6" class="rich-text-note-link">6</a></sup> For more comprehensive discussion of justiciable problems, and the justiciable problem legal needs survey approach, see Genn, H. (1999). Paths to Justice: What People Do and Think About Going to Law. Oxford: Hart.

<sup><a id="ref-7" href="#note-7" class="rich-text-note-link">7</a></sup> Law and Justice Foundation of NSW. (2013). Legal needs of single parents in New South Wales. Updating Justice, 18, 1-2.

<sup><a id="ref-8" href="#note-8" class="rich-text-note-link">8</a></sup> The PULS measured action in response to justiciable problems in the following categories: ‘did nothing’, ‘handled alone’, ‘informal help from family/friends’, ‘independent help’, and ‘legal service independent help’.

<sup><a id="ref-9" href="#note-9" class="rich-text-note-link">9</a></sup> The OECD/OSF framework defines a legal need as met or unmet by taking into account problem duration, seriousness, legal capability, process fairness, use of expert help and adequacy of support. See further, OECD/Open Society Foundations. (2019). Legal Needs Surveys and Access to Justice. Paris: OECD Publishing.

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How single parents experience the law in Victoria

Release date
April 24, 2024
Hugh M. McDonald
Emmaline Ohri
Cover of the publication - How single parents experience the law in Victoria

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