Assessing the legal problems and justice needs in America

HiiL and IAALS (Advancement of the American Legal System) launched the ‘US Justice Needs’ report on 1 September and 15 September to reveal insights and the policy implications of America’s first nation-wide study on access to justice.

“While it is widely understood that there’s an access to justice problem in the United States, the full extent of the justice crisis has been less clear. [This] lack of clarity regarding the extent of this crisis means that there is a lack of clarity around possible solutions.”

With these words, David Yellen, CEO of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) set the stage for the report launch of our latest Justice Needs and Satisfaction (JNS) study. The ‘US Justice Needs’ survey reached 10,058 Americans, asking them about the legal problems they have experienced in the last four years, what they did to solve those problems, and ultimately whether they felt they managed to reach a fair resolution.

Funded by the Bohemian Foundation, the nationwide survey is the first of its size in the US to measure how Americans across a broad range of socio-demographic groups experience and resolve their legal problems. 

“This study clearly shows a great diversity of justice needs, sources of help, advice treatments, and interventions for nearly 120 million Americans,” said Sam Muller, CEO of HiiL. “[Americans] need better, faster, and more fair solutions for their legal problems and too many of them are stuck.”

Key Findings

The US JNS study provides nationwide representative data on how people in the US experience justice and resolve their justice concerns. With the goal of promoting greater understanding, the report highlights what is working but also what is not, and seeks to inform and assist reform efforts aimed at increasing people-centred justice in the United States. 

Highlights from the report include:

  • Access to justice is a broad societal problem—66% of the population experienced at least one legal issue in the past four years, with just 49% of those problems having been completely resolved.
  • While low-income Americans are a particularly vulnerable population, the study shows that the need for fair resolution of legal problems is experienced universally across different groups of the population—67% of Americans with household income of less than 25K per year faced one or more legal problems in the last four years.
  • When we look at the rates at which people encounter legal problems, the relative seriousness of those problems, and the rates at which they were able to completely resolve their legal problems, the following groups stand out as most vulnerable: lower income, women, multiracial and Black Americans, younger and middle-aged, and those living in urban and rural environments. For example, 71% of Black Americans had to deal with legal problems in the last four years.
  • The JNS study highlights the wide range of negative consequences that result from these legal problems and the justice journeys that people experience. Those negative consequences correlate with problem seriousness, which means that the most serious problems identified are also associated with more negative consequences in people’s lives.

The study examined only the legal problems of adults over age 18 and did not include hidden populations such as inmates, people living in mental health facilities, or people in hospitals.

“Justice is often compared to education, healthcare and other public policies,” said HiiL’s Director for Measuring Justice, Martin Gramatikov. “This data and this evidence raise questions such as what if 120 million diseases remained untreated or what if half of the children in the US do not go to school.”

During her presentation, IAALS’ Director of Research Logan Cornett addressed justice journeys and the actions taken by those seeking to resolve their justice issues. “About three quarters of Americans surveyed took some kind of action to resolve their issue. That means they engaged at least one source of legal help, or that they negotiated directly with the other party.”

Additionally, the study helped researchers identify over 820 unique combinations of sources of help that people engaged as they work through their justice journeys. Logan continued, “Of course, there are many differences across problem types and demographic groups but the data tells us that people look to numerous resources and combinations of resources for help in resolving their issues.”

The people who most often took action had issues related to family, public benefits, land, and money related issues. While the people who took action least frequently had government services issues, problems with the police, and traffic and parking.

Using this data to change how we think 

“What we see from this research is that this access to justice crisis is not just one of low income,” said Brittany Kauffman, the Senior Director at IAALS. “It is a crisis that extends across the full spectrum of our society, and so that is a critical piece.”

In speaking to the crucial implications of the JNS study, Professor Maurits Barendrecht, HiiL’s Director of Research & Development, emphasised the wealth of data and the opportunities for action.  For example, shifting to more online services and platforms to help deliver people-centred justice.

IAALS and HiiL convened at a second webinar on 15 September 2021 to dive deeper into the takeaways and policy implications of the report. At a later date, IAALS and HiiL will launch online interactive dashboards that will allow greater transparency and interactive modelling of the data.

Watch the complete webinar: US Justice Needs Study: 10,000 Voices.

Watch the complete webinar: The US Justice Needs Study: Policy Implications for Access to Justice


IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, is a national, independent research center dedicated to facilitating continuous improvement and advancing excellence in the American legal system. Our mission is to forge innovative and practical solutions to problems within the American legal system.

About HiiL

The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL) is an international social enterprise committed to user-friendly justice. Our global mission is to ensure by 2030 that 150 million people can prevent or resolve their most pressing justice problems. To achieve this, we gather data and use evidence-based practices that promote ‘what works’ and help stimulate and scale-up game-changing justice innovations worldwide. 

Further Reading: