Understanding everyday problems

Legal needs surveys cover a range of everyday problems that people encounter throughout their lives.

The range of problems include the everyday problems people experience which involve rights or raise legal issues, whether or not this is recognised or the problem acted upon. These include problems related to:

  • goods and services
  • housing and neighbours
  • family  
  • injury or illness
  • work
  • government payments
  • fines
  • government services
  • money or debt
  • business

While problems are widespread and can be described as ‘everyday’, the impact they can have on people’s lives can be profound. They can stem from and result in physical and mental ill-health; damaged relationships; harassment, threats and assault; housing loss; or financial insecurity. They are at base ‘legal issues’, but the ramifications can be far-reaching.

Impact of COVID-19 and the bushfires

The COVID-19 pandemic introduced new rights and obligations and is likely to have created or exacerbated justiciable problems. This is an important part of the PULS.

Surveys of this kind are always a snapshot of the time in which they are undertaken. The experience in Victoria of both the bushfires in 2019/20 and the extensive lockdowns in 2020 are likely to have had a bearing on how people experienced and dealt with their legal problems and it is important to identify that.

The PULS will include questions asking respondents about the interaction between these events and their experience of justiciable problems in a number of ways, including:

  • Whether the justiciable problems people had were caused or made worse by bushfires or the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Whether COVID-19 public health restrictions made it harder to get advice
  • The extent to which respondents understood and were able to follow public health rules related to the pandemic

Focusing on demographic groups

There are a number of questions about respondents and their social and demographic characteristics. This means we can look at legal capability and experience of everyday legal problems in a range of ways, for example, whether particular groups are more susceptible to a problem or have particular capability challenges. This can prompt consideration of new ways to deliver services, so they better reflect need and increase access to justice. This might include looking at differences based on demographic information on gender, age, health, income, family circumstances, housing, employment or education.

There are limits however. Even though the PULS is Victoria-wide and covers a large number of respondents, there are some groups that you can’t look at in detail.

Some groups:

  • are entirely missing from our sample frame, such as hospital in-patients, prisoners, those living on military bases, residents in care facilities, or rough sleepers
  • will only be surveyed in small numbers, such as specific ethnic minority groups or First Nations Victorians
  • would need the questionnaire to be adapted significantly so it better engages with their life and experiences, such as asylum seekers, children, some people with cognitive impairment, or people with specific learning disabilities

Some surveys boost numbers of some of these groups in order to allow for focused data analysis, though in practice this can be difficult and can result in skewed data. It is not always simple to find higher numbers of respondents belonging to specific communities to increase their numbers. First Nations Victorians for example live all over Victoria; and others require an entirely different sample frame (for example, people in residential care would need a sample frame of care homes). In most of these cases, a separate focused project is required, sometimes with a completely different methodology.

Examples where this has been done around the world include surveying people in temporary accommodation, homeless people, those in residential care, those in extreme poverty, prisoners and sex workers.  

The PULS is part of an ongoing project, exploring legal capability and how people experience and interact with law. We plan to conduct complementary research in the future that focuses on some groups which are currently not included in high enough numbers, or not appropriately engaged. One group of particular interest is First Nations Peoples.

Engaging First Nations Peoples

First Nations Peoples are included in the PULS sample frame and could be randomly selected for interview as adults living at a residential address in Victoria. If however Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are included in proportion to their representation in Victoria, this would yield around 50 respondents, limiting the extent to which you could explore their particular experience.

Correcting for this in the survey process is not simple. You might sample or oversample in areas with a higher than average First Nations population, or you might screen people out if they are not from First Nations communities. The first of these would not be practical, since the Victorian First Nations population is dispersed throughout Victoria, with a large number in Metropolitan Melbourne. The second would mean that the PULS was no longer a probability sample.

To explore the experience of First Nations Peoples in Victoria properly, a separate project would be needed, which:

  • works to a sample frame to include diverse First Nations experience
  • uses a culturally appropriate questionnaire and survey method
  • is led by First Nations run organisations  

The VLF is committed to ethical conduct in research including developing and strengthening research capabilities within communities. The VLF is planning to initiate a project to explore how a First Nations PULS or legal need survey could be conducted with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations.

Comparing findings with other surveys

Findings can be compared to other surveys, but care is needed.

We know that there will be an interest in looking at findings from the PULS and comparing them with the LAW Survey, the last large-scale legal need survey conducted in Australia.  

The ways surveys are conducted (telephone, face-to-face, online) and the way questions are asked can make a significant difference to what people tell us. LAW was a national phone survey, and the PULS is face-to-face and limited to Victoria, so direct comparisons are not always possible.  

Specific statistics, such as the percentage of those reporting employment problems, or seeking legal advice, are not directly comparable, but core findings on things like links between legal capability, problem experience and disadvantage, barriers to action and what this means for legal assistance services certainly are.

Issues for small business

Understanding small business problems and how they interact with other life events is an important inclusion in the PULS – especially in light of COVID-19

We have included a series of questions specifically investigating the recent experience of people in small business. If respondents have been a business owner in the past 12 months, we ask whether they have had any problems or disputes to do with contracts, invoicing, business premises, employees, taxation or regulation.  

This will allow us to explore how business problems interact with other justiciable problems, and what this might mean for business advice and support services. However, while this will yield important findings, it is not an alternative to a dedicated business legal need survey, which we would like to pursue in the future.

Read the latest PULS report

This first volume updates the broad picture of access to justice and legal need, explores how justiciable problems are experienced, what people do about them, and how they progress and conclude (if they conclude).
Everyday Problems and Legal Need