Assessing America’s Access to Civil Justice Crisis
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UC Irvine Law Review

UC Irvine

Assessing America’s Access to Civil Justice Crisis


Many strongly believe the United States faces a crisis in access to civil justice but differ starkly in what they believe that means. Some observers believe the key issue is unrepresented litigants in trials and hearings, while others point to the tens of millions of people facing justice problems outside of the courts with no assistance. We offer definitions of three concepts central to assessing the crisis—justiciable events, legal needs, and cases—and examine the availability of consistently collected, nationally representative data measuring these three phenomena. Such data are sparse. Some information about justice experiences is collected for those justiciable events—a bare minority—that become court cases, but these data are not collected in uniform ways, nor are they always made available to researchers for analysis. The past few years have seen a growth in the number of civil justice surveys of the public, which give insight into the prevalence of specific kinds of justiciable events and their impacts on those who experience them. The concept at the core of the dominant understanding of the access to justice crisis, legal need, is ironically the phenomenon about which we have the least information.

We draw on ideas from the field of public health to develop two measures of access to justice that shift analytic focus away from granular experience with problems, court processes, or legal services to summarize Americans’ justice experiences: Civil Justice Problem-Free Life Expectancy and Civil Justice Hardship-Free Life Expectancy. The measures report how many years of life people can expect to spend dealing with civil justice problems and experiencing health, economic, or relationship hardships as a result of those problems. Americans spend large proportions of their lives experiencing civil justice problems and suffering consequent hardships. For example, a typical woman in midlife can expect to be experiencing civil justice problems for over half of her remaining years, while a typical eighteen-year-old can look forward to spending thirteen years of their life experiencing health, economic, or interpersonal hardships as a result of civil justice problems. The new measures permit comparisons across groups, geography and time, and constitute new tools for assessing the impact of policy changes.

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