Legal aid ‘justice gap’ reinforces the poverty trap and costs more, new study finds

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Legal aid ‘justice gap’ reinforces the poverty trap and costs more, new study finds

Image from Proof issue 3: Why legal aid matters

Investment in legal aid can lead to significant government savings, greater efficiency in the justice system increased economic productivity. According to a new report published by the International Bar Association’s access to justice and legal aid committee and the World Bank (see earlier report on the Justice Gap here). According to the report, improving legal aid services is as important for economic growth as providing functioning hospitals, schools and roads.

The report surveyed over 50 cost-benefit analyses of legal aid programmes across the developed and developing world, including Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Liberia, Malawi, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The results overwhelmingly documented how increased access to justice can be a ‘win-win’ for individuals, the economy and wider society.

Examples of tangible benefits included:

  • A reduction in the length of time suspects are held in police stations and detention centres
  • A reduction in the prison population
  • A reduction in the number of wrongfully convicted persons
  • A reduction of sentencing costs
  • An increase in the efficiency of the courts via reduced time spent on self-representing litigants.

Without legal aid, costs become borne by other aspects of the public sector less equipped to adequately resolve the cause of the problem, such as health care, housing, child protection and incarceration. A study conducted in Canada estimated that the costs of unequal access to justice on other areas of public spending (such as employment insurance, social insurance, social assistance and health care costs) to be roughly 2.35 times more than annual expenditures on legal aid.

The report stressed that the benefits to be gained from legal aid extended beyond criminal law. Instead, legal aid can be most beneficial by focussing on everyday legal needs in civil courts. For example, legal aid is needed in housing law, as the most frequently cited legal needs relate to evictions, foreclosure, utility payment issues, unsafe housing conditions and homelessness. In terms of family law, needs generally include divorce, domestic violence, child custody, visitation, maintenance and alimony, and division of family assets.

For instance, a highlighted costs benefit study in Wisconsin, USA, found that each prevented incident of domestic violence saves US$3,201 per year in avoided medical care, mental healthcare, lost productivity, and property damage costs.

As emphasised in the report, there are other hidden costs to society for failing to address the global justice gap, including the prevention of crime by increasing awareness of legal rights among marginalised groups and the empowerment and wider social inclusion of such groups.

A study from Kentucky, USA, examined the impact of civil protective orders on victims of domestic violence. Its authors calculated the economic costs of partner violence six months before and after a protective order was issued. The estimated costs were focused primarily on service utilisation, including health and mental care services, legal services, and costs in both civil and criminal court. Indirect costs concerned lost opportunities to work and productivity, loss of quality of life and property loss. Findings demonstrated that the relative cost of a protective order was low in comparison with the total costs associated with partner violence. Overall, the study demonstrated that every US$1 spent on the protective order saved US$32 in avoided costs for society.