Self-Helpers need help too

This paper by Dr. Ab Currie, principal researcher at the Department of Justice in Canada looks at the range and the extent to which Canadians handled problems themselves in the context of legal issues. Canadians are more than twice as likely to pursue a self-help option than to use any other path to justice (such as advice and representation). The research also found that self-help options had a high resolution rate with 62% expressing satisfaction with the outcome.

The paper: Self-Helpers need help too (101 KB)

The research also highlights the fact that Canadians handle all sorts of problems by themselves – although to varying degrees. These issues are often not trivial problems but serious issues, which potentially trigger other problems thereby compounding the severity because they affect their emotional or physical wellbeing. Whilst not as serious as those issues which they sought legal advice for, the respondents felt these issues were to some extent disruptive to their lives and were important to resolve. In the case of consumer and debt issues the monetary value was less than in those cases for which legal advice was sought, but the value was by no means minor (for example 18% of consumer self-help cases were valued between $5000 and $24,999 CA).

Self-help is not only the most frequent response to legal issues, it is sometimes the only option when people can’t afford legal help. The research points to the need for better support for those people who are handling a problem themselves. 1/3 of people said they felt some form of assistance would have been beneficial – most commonly better information followed closely by help from a lawyer. In the case of public legal education and information (PLEI) evidence suggested that PLEI could be improved by helping people to construct problem solving strategies.

Details of the research

Using figures from the national survey of legal problems in Canada carried out in 2008, the research focuses on the large number of people who use self help as the means to solve their problem. In Canada this is the most frequent response amounting to almost 50% (49.8%) of the respondents in the survey.

Key findings about self-helpers include:

  • Self-help was used to deal with all problem types, although in varying degrees. The highest percentage was in the consumer and debt categories.
  • Respondents employed self-help for legal problems that are important for their physical and emotional well-being and that of their families, such as employment, housing, social assistance and disability pensions.
  • Respondents used self-help strategies less often for problems which did not disrupt their daily lives. Even so, 40.7% of respondents said that they had used self-help for problems which were ‘disruptive to some extent’.
  • Self-helpers are not strongly represented by any particular demographic groups. There was a light tendency for them to be older, to have higher incomes, to be somewhat better educated and to be single or married or a couple with no children. They were less likely to report having a physical or mental health problem.
  • Using monetary value attached to consumer and debt problems as a proxy measure for the seriousness of the problem, the research showed that problems where people used self-help to resolve them, were not trivial matters.
  • The problems experienced by people who employ self-help strategies trigger other problems slightly less frequently than problems for which people obtain legal advice. However, it is ‘sufficiently frequent in relative terms to be of concern.’
  • Self-helpers said that over a third of the legal problems they experienced (38.7%) triggered a health or social problem. Social problems were predominately family related.
  • For more than one third of resolved problems (38.7%) self-helpers felt that, in retrospect, some form of assistance would be improved the outcome for them.
  • The types of assistance that respondents suggested would have been useful in a large percentage of problems suggests that public legal information about rights might have been helpful in resolving the problem.

Self-Help strategies

While self-helpers did not use any form of legal advice or have contact with any non-legal source for assistance, they could have pursued any one or a combination of four self-help strategies:

  • Approaching the other party of their own
  • Turning to friends or relatives for advice
  • Searching the internet, or
  • Accessing information in video or paper formats.

When asked (unprompted) what actions they took to resolve their problem, 56.6% of the respondents said that they approached the other party to the dispute. Only 0.4% said that they had searched the internet, 2.2% talked to friends or relatives and just 0.1% had accessed video or print form. For 39.8% of problems, respondents said that they undertook a variety of actions.

Interestingly, the answers were different when respondents were prompted. When prompted, 16.8% of self-helpers said they had used the internet, 9.1% of looked for information in video or print formats and a much higher percentage (43.1%) said they had talked to friends and relatives.

Dr. Currie observes that this raises some very interesting questions about how people perceive the process of dispute resolution and problem solving, and how they go about resolving problems.

‘If people don’t think of internet-based public legal education and information as a tool, they may use it casually rather than purposively. If people tend not to use these strategies purposively, their potential value in the access to justice toolbox is diminished.’

Further research

The paper suggests that further research is needed about the ways in which, and the success with which, people use public legal education and information as part of problem-solving strategies.

Dr. Currie also suggests that further research is carried out about why people pursue self-help strategies; whether barriers such as the perceived cost of alternatives or insufficient knowledge to properly assess the complexity of the problems and the best options for resolving it. In addition, it is not known whether the large number of people who pursue self-help strategies indicates an ethic of self-reliance, which if properly supported by public legal information, advice or assistance would enable people to resolve their legal problems more effectively.

National Survey

The national survey was a random survey of 7002 Canadians aged 18 years of age and older conducted by telephone in January and February 2008. The survey asked respondents if during the previous three years they had experienced any of 83 specific problems (subsequently grouped into 16 problem types). It also asked respondents about problem resolution, problem consequences and connects between problems. The survey found that 54% of the sample reported having experienced one or more justiciable problems.

Dr. Ab Currie

Ab Currie is Principal Researcher, Access to Justice and Legal Aid in the Department of Justice Canada. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Toronto. Dr. Currie has been conducting policy research on legal aid and other access to justice issues for more than 25 years. He has conducted extensive research on the incidence and patterns of justiciable problems and on unmet need for access to justice services in civil matters.