This is one of the most important posts I have ever written. I am honored to be authorized to post the communications research conducted by Lake Research Partners and the Torrance Group on civil legal aid and access to justice for the new Communications Hub funded by the Public Welfare Foundation and the Kresge Foundation. (Disclosures: The Self-Represented Network is on the Advisory Board of the Project and the Public Welfare Foundation is a funder of Network activities.)
I want to do three things. First highlight what is for me the key finding; second to quote the whole Executive Summary, which everyone should internalize, and; third, make a few comments highlighting things that caught my eye, and may reflect particularly the things that I most care about.
While there is much of importance in the results, the key finding that I hope will revolutionize our attitude so that we are not only proud of our work, but publicly proud. That finding is that when people in the middle are exposed to the best arguments both for and against additional funding for civil legal aid (broadly defined), their support goes up and not down. As the Summary Analysis of the Report (link here) puts it:
Voters are open to increasing funding for Civil Legal Aid, which is no small feat in a spending and tax sensitive environment and given the program’s relatively low profile today. A plurality (45%) of voters initially support increasing funding for Civil Legal Aid while one-quarter (24%) is undecided and another nearly one-in-three (29%) oppose the program.
Support for increased funding crosses the 50% threshold in the context of a simulated debate – with opponents characterizing Civil Legal Aid as costly, ineffective, and ripe for abuse, and advocates defining the program—and the debate—around the value of assuring fairness for all in the justice system. Crossing the 50% threshold is typically considered a necessary benchmark for elected officials to feel safe throwing their support behind a cause.
In other words, we have nothing to fear from a broad public debate. Frankly this is in profound opposition to the generally fearful culture of legal aid.
Here is the full text of the Executive Summary:
The debate over increased funding for Civil Legal Aid is informed by two mounting trends in public opinion, which give rise to a set of complex and at times contradictory attitudes. On one hand is the public’s diminished faith in government to manage public affairs wisely or efficiently. On the other hand, is a profound sense of economic insecurity, and a growing belief that the rules of the game have fundamentally changed in ways that work against the interests of most Americans. Civil Legal Aid advocates have a tremendous opportunity to frame the debate over increased public support for the program in the context of these two trends and without being overtaken by either.
While previous research assessed support for existing levels of public funding for Civil Legal Aid programs, this effort explored the public’s appetite for increasing funding for the program — a higher threshold in the current economic environment. Even so, the results of this central question are quite promising, uncovering several important opportunities and caveats:
- Civil Legal Aid advocates are in a strong position. Voters start out in favor of increased funding for Civil Legal Aid, and in an engaged debate—where voters are exposed to arguments in favor of, and against, Civil Legal Aid—support exceeds fifty percent. This is a debate we can win.
- While the public believes it is important—in fact, critical—to have access to legal expertise in order to navigate the complexities of the civil justice system, they are largely unfamiliar with that system and have many fewer associations with it than with the criminal justice system.
- In addition, the debate over support for Civil Legal Aid remains far from the public consciousness today; in this regard, the debate has not matured substantially over the past decade. More than one-third of voters have never heard, or have no opinion of, Civil Legal Aid. While the survey data shows that those who have an impression feel positively toward the term, the focus groups highlighted just how shallow those impressions are.
- Despite the public’s lack of familiarity with Civil Legal Aid, over eight-in-ten voters support the basic principle behind Civil Legal Aid: that all Americans should have access to legal representation or help in civil matters, regardless of how much money you have.
- The term Civil Legal Aid elicits the most positive reactions out of several terms tested and is the most recognized; advocates should feel comfortable referring to the program as such. While the term alone is not a substitute for a message, it provides a solid foundation on which to build.
- The reality of our cluttered communications environment today is such that the “thirty- second sound-bite” has been whittled down to roughly nine seconds. While this reality does not obviate the need for more detailed arguments, advocates must be able to convey in a single sentence a values-oriented message about the need, and broad- based benefits, of Civil Legal Aid.
- Making Civil Legal Aid more relevant by tapping into broadly-held values, specifically the public’s desire for fairness for all in the justice system, is vital. Fairness is the value most associated with Civil Legal Aid—whether through access to representation or leveling the playing field. Self-empowerment and protection from harm are secondary dimensions that communications can evoke. In the briefest of contexts, the most effective way to characterize Civil Legal Aid is:“Civil Legal Aid assures fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money you have.”
- In contrast to previous recommendations, this study finds that, with more time to convey an argument in favor of Civil Legal Aid, and after articulating the program’s core value (see above), it is more important to outline some of the specific services provided rather than detailing the populations typically served by Civil Legal Aid.
- The services voters most prioritize focus on making access to quality and accurate information easier (such as easy-to-understand forms, legal assistance, and legal representation), and self-help centers so that people can know their rights. Streamlining the court system and reducing court costs also have appeal.
- A more detailed characterization of Civil Legal Aid might employ the following language:
“Civil Legal Aid assures fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money you have. It provides access to legal help for people to protect their livelihoods, their health, and their families. Civil Legal Aid makes it easier to access information—whether through easy-to-understand forms, including online forms; legal assistance or representation; and legal self-help centers—so people can know their rights. Civil Legal Aid also helps streamline the court system and cuts down on court costs. When we say the Pledge of Allegiance we close with “justice for all.” We need programs like Civil Legal Aid to ensure that the very principle our founding fathers envisioned remains alive: justice for all, not the few who can afford it.”
I am personally particularly struck by the extent to which it undercuts the legal aid message when the program is perceived as a poor person’s program which does not help ordinary voters. Indeed, as the Executive Summary puts it:
Middle-class voters are especially sensitive about increasing funding for public programs from which they are excluded . That is especially acute here since people can imagine needing these services themselves and think it is “unfair” to be disqualified based on their income. Many participants in the focus groups expressed a desire to be able to enjoy the benefits of Civil Legal Aid. When assuaging this concern that middle-class voters are excluded, we should make distinctions about what specific services they can access such as online forms and information and self-help centers to name a few.
One possible response to this concern would be to make the program available to all on a sliding scale basis. This idea attracts much higher support than a proposal to simply increase funding for Civil Legal Aid.
It is also important to note that the conception of “Civil Legal Aid” in the messaging is NOT intended to be limited to non-profit government funded programs, but includes court-based programs that provide services and help to litigants.
This is the recommended message response to the attack that civil legal aid does not help most people (It should be noted that this attack raises doubts for 59% of respondents and serious doubts for 30% — but remember that after attacks are responded to, support for funding goes up):
Civil Legal Aid assures fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money you have. The program serves Americans of all backgrounds and ages, including families, children, veterans, seniors, ill or disabled people, and women who are victims of domestic violence. Civil Legal Aid provides access to legal help for people to protect their livelihoods, their health, and their families. It provides access to legal aid self-help centers, makes it easier to access information through easy-to-understand forms and online information, and provides legal assistance so people can know their rights. Civil Legal Aid assures fairness in the justice system that all Americans deserve.
Similarly, the recommended messaging highlights types of actual services rather than specific target populations. Note how those are a broad melange of access services rather than the traditional full service model. These “new” services are very much the ones that are available to all.
–Provide easy-to-understand forms, including online forms, that people can use in civil legal proceedings;
–Provide legal assistance, including legal self-help centers, so people can know their rights; and
–Provide legal representation to those who cannot afford it—because justice should not depend on how much money you have.
This also links in to the continued recommendation of the use the phrase “Civil Legal Aid”, for the following reason.
‘Aid’ resonates more strongly than other terms, such as ‘assistance’ and ‘services’, because it evokes the value of help without pigeon-holing those receiving the help or priming negative connotations of exorbitant costs borne, but not enjoyed, by middle-class taxpayers (‘Aid’ receives 25% support compared to 19% for ‘assistance’ and 17% for ‘services’).
A conclusion. This is all terribly important, and will, I believe, ultimately have major policy as well as communication implications. The Public Welfare Foundation and the Kresge Foundation have earned all our praise for this work, and for creating and supporting the now launched Communications Hub.