Hugh McDonald


As access to justice strategies evolve and expand, with user-centric, multifaceted, and more holistic approaches that seek to better match legal need and capability, and as the justice system sits on the cusp of digital transformation, empirical methods and measures that mirror evolving strategies are vital. Evolved empirical methods and measures are needed to not only assess access to justice, but also to learn “what works” to meet diverse legal need and capability across the community. Better, more effective, and cost-efficient access to justice appears to rest, at least in part, on improved ability to monitor diverse legal need and capability across the community: from differential legal need to differential justice system use and outcomes. In particular, how much “legal” do different people need to enjoy access to justice? If the justice system is intended to do justice, there is relatively thin user-centric evidence demonstrating how much “legal” is enough.

Improved measures of legal need and capability, and of justice system outcomes, will not only help assess access to justice, but design of user-centric legal assistance and justice system processes.

This Article draws on several access to justice challenges and considers three sources of empirical evidence of individual access to justice and legal need—access to justice and legal needs surveys, justice system administrative data and evaluative research efforts—to examine how empirical legal studies can throw new light on important access to justice questions. Without improved ability to monitor and measure legal need, capability and outcomes, ability to assess access to justice, user-centric policy reforms, and learn “what works” to effectively and efficiently meet that legal need is likely to remain stunted.

How much legal do people need to meet legal needs and enjoy access to justice? And how can we know?

Learning “what works” to build foundational legal capability and effective pathways to justice are critical to the design of effective and efficient justice systems that mirror community legal needs and problem-solving behavior. The shift to a user-centric, bottom-up, multifaceted, and holistic approach to access to justice, to better cater to diverse legal need and capability, requires a commensurate user-centric shift in assessing access to justice.



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