The Legal Problems of Everyday Life - The Nature, Extent and Consequences of Justiciable Problems Experienced by Canadians

Chapter IV: The Degrees of Seriousness of Justiciable Problems

The objective of the research was to identify justiciable problems experienced by the public that met two criteria. First, the problems had to represent legal problems with legal content and for which a legal solution was a possible option. Second, the problems had to meet some basic threshold of seriousness. Satisfying the first criterion was not difficult. Because the legal content of the 80 specific questions about the occurrence of justiciable problems was carefully controlled in the design of the questionnaire, there is little doubt about the legal nature of the problems reported by respondents. Respondents were asked to respond either "yes" or "no" to whether they had experienced particular problems each with a legal aspect.

However, controlling the level of seriousness of the self-reported justiciable problems is not as straightforward as controlling the legal content of problems. By using the high threshold language of "serious" and "difficult to resolve" in the questions, an attempt was made to limit the problems identified by respondents to ones that were not trivial in nature. However, because the research relies on the subjective judgments by respondents as to the meaning of "serious" and "difficult to resolve", some ambiguity can arise because of the variability of people's judgments. This chapter examines the variability inherent in responses based on subjective assessments by examining the problems reported as being serious and difficult to resolve in the problem identification section in relation to two measures of the seriousness of, and the importance of resolving problems.

The threshold language used in the questionnaire asked respondents to identify only problems that they considered serious and difficult to resolve. This was done at the beginning of the interview. Later in the interview respondents were asked a specific question related to seriousness; how difficult the problem made their daily lives. Also, respondents were asked how important it was for them to resolve the problem. This was linked to the difficult to resolve criterion. Of course, judging a problem to be serious does not necessarily imply that it would make a person's daily life difficult. Characterizing a problem as difficult to resolve is not the same as indicating that it must therefore be important to resolve the problem. Therefore, the additional data relating to serious and difficult to resolve do not negate the results obtained by the initial threshold language. However, the additional data allow an assessment of the robustness of the threshold language, serious and difficult to resolve employed in the problem identification part of the questionnaire for discriminating between serious and non-serious problems. As well, the results will provide an assessment of the variability or elasticity of the concepts being discussed will allow the reader to better understand the results.[142]

The Importance of Resolving Problems

In the present study respondents were asked how important it was for them to resolve the problem, using a scale of one to five ranging from very important to not important at all. This scale relates to the part of the threshold language of the question specifying that a problem should have been or should currently be difficult to resolve. There is not a perfect logical concurrence between saying that a problem was difficult to resolve and how important it was to resolve the problem. However, one would expect that respondents would have a desire to resolve any problem that they considered serious and difficult to resolve. Table 24 shows respondents' assessments of the importance of resolving the problem.[143] A substantial proportion of respondents, 86.7 per cent, indicated that it was important in some degree to resolve their justiciable problem. In fact, more than sixty percent said that it was either extremely or very important to resolve the problem. This is a confirmation of the robustness of the threshold language in the screening questions for discriminating problems that are difficult to resolve.

Table 24: Importance of Resolving Problems.
Importance of Resolving the Problem Number Per Cent Cumulative Per Cent
Extremely Important 1726 30.1 30.1
Very Important 1879 32.8 62.9
Somewhat Important 1365 23.8 86.7
Not very Important 478 8.3 95.1
Not Important at All 284 5.0 100.0

Seriousness of Problems in Causing Difficulty in the Daily Lives of Respondents

Respondents were also asked how difficult each problem made their daily lives. This relates to the serious element of the threshold language. However, it is entirely possible that respondents could accurately characterize a problem as having a high degree of seriousness without characterizing it as being disruptive to their daily lives. Table 25 shows the overall percentage of respondents who indicated that the problem, in some measure, made their daily lives difficult. Almost sixty per cent (58.9 %) of respondents indicated that the problem made life somewhat to extremely difficult. Although the percentages are not quite as high as those for importance of resolving the problem, the results inspire confidence in the robustness of the threshold language used to identify serious problems. It can be assumed for the most part, that the problems identified in the survey can be reasonably characterized as serious and difficult to resolve for the people experiencing them.

Table 25: Difficulty Problems Made in Daily Life
Difficulty the Problem Made in Daily Life Number Per Cent Cumulative Per Cent
Extremely Difficult 629 11.0 11.0
Very Difficult 843 14.7 25.7
Somewhat Difficult 1902 33.2 58.9
Not Very Difficult 1074 18.7 77.6
Not Difficult at All 1281 22.4 100.0

The Perceived Seriousness of Problem Types

Not all types of problems are perceived by the people experiencing them as being equally serious. Only 10.4 per cent of respondents experiencing a consumer problem said that it was extremely or very disruptive to their daily lives, compared with 59.3 per cent who said that the problem was not very disruptive or not at all disruptive. On the other hand, 47.5 per cent of respondents with a consumer problem said it was extremely important to resolve the problem, compared with 18.8 per cent saying that it was either not very important or not important at all. This contrasts with family law problems in which 32.9 percent indicated that a relationship breakdown problem was severely disruptive to their daily lives compared with 16.4 per cent who said the situation was not very disruptive or not disruptive at all. In this case, 50 per cent chose the middle ground, indicating that the situation was somewhatdisruptive. Similarly, with other family law problems, respondents indicated that 59.4 per cent of the problems were extremely or very disruptive to their daily lives, while only 6.5 per cent said the problem was not very disruptive. Table 26 shows seriousness indicators for all problem types.

Table 26: The Perceived Seriousness of Civil Justice Problems

The Elasticity of Serious and Difficult Justiciable Problems

Table 27 shows the number of justiciable problems overall compared with the number where the respondent indicated that it was very or somewhat important to resolve the problem.[144] The percentage reduction in the number of problems between all problems and only problems for which the respondent thought it important to resolve it provides an indication of the robustness of the threshold language in the questionnaire. As well, the difference in the overall number of problems and the number of problems for which respondents said it was important to resolve it is a measure of the elasticity of concept of justiciable problems. The lower the percentage, the more elastic is the concept of a justiciable problem that may be considered serious and difficult. About 80 per cent (80.9%) of respondents who initially indicated that they had a consumer problem, they characterized as serious and difficult to resolve, later said that it was in some degree important for them to resolve it. Although the threshold language stipulating difficult to resolve in the questionnaire was least discriminating for consumer problems, it is remarkable that 80 per cent concordance is the lowest among all problem types. This does not mean that the other 20 per cent of consumer problems should be eliminated from the calculation of the incidence of justicible problems. It was argued elsewhere that respondents' indicating they did not attempt a resolution to a problem does not necessarily mean that the problem is trivial. Similarly, saying that it was not very important or, for that matter not important at all, to resolve a problem does not necessarily mean that the problem does not meet a threshold criterion of difficulty necessary for inclusion. It means that the elasticity of this problem type, although it does not appear to be great, should be kept in mind in considering aspects of the analysis involving consumer problems. Other problem types show varying degrees of elasticity. The remaining problems show between 80 and nearly 100 per cent concordance between the initial threshold language and subsequent assessments of the importance attached to resolving the problem.

Table 27: Justiciable Problems: Important to Resolve
Problem Type Number of Problems Overall Number of Problems Important to Resolve Per Cent
Consumer 1480 1197 80.9%
Employment 1421 1261 88.7%
Debt 1444 1243 86.1%
Social Assistance 49 45 91.8%
Disability Pensions 48 45 93.8%
Housing 95 85 89.5%
Immigration 35 34 97.1%
Discrimination 91 74 81.3%
Police Action 103 88 85.4%
Family: Relationship Breakdown 224 227 93.0%
Other Family Law Problems 68 67 98.5%
Wills and Powers of Attorney 330 308 93.3%
Personal Injury 161 153 95.0%
Hospital Treatment and Release 86 82 95.3%
Threat of Legal Action 51 44 86.3%
Total 5655 4953 87.6%

Table 28 shows the reduction in the number of justiciable problems if they were limited to problems that respondents said made their daily lives either very or somewhat difficult. Of course, one can have a serious problem that does not make daily life difficult. On the other hand, a problem that makes one's day-to-day life difficult is clearly more serious, at least based on the qualitative assessment of the person experiencing the problem. The difference between problems that respondents said were serious and problems that people said were serious enough to make their daily lives difficult provides a second indication of the elasticity of the concept of a serious and difficult problem. These results should dispel any reservations about the reliability of the methodology even though the responses are subjective and the data qualitative.

Compared to the reduction in the incidence of problems when respondents expressed a positive desire to resolve the problem, the incidence of serious justiciable problems is reduced much more when only problems that adversely affected the daily lives of respondents are included. However, a situation in which a problem makes the normal day-to day life of the person difficult is a strong measure of the seriousness of the problem. Again, consumer problems show the greatest difference between all reported problems and ones that made the daily lives of respondents difficult. It is, nonetheless, remarkable that between about 40 and 90 per cent of problems, depending on problem type, were serious enough to make the normal day-to-day lives of people difficult. Again, this inspires confidence that the threshold language of the problem identification part of the research instrument has succeeded in discriminating serious problems.

Table 28: Justiciable Problems: Causing Difficulty for Daily Life
Problem Type Number of Problems Overall Number of Problems That Made Daily Life Difficult Per Cent
Consumer 1480 639 43.2%
Employment 1421 978 68.8%
Debt 1444 721 49.9%
Social Assistance 49 38 77.6%
Disability Pensions 48 43 89.6%
Housing 95 65 68.4%
Immigration 35 29 82.9%
Discrimination 91 64 70.3%
Police Action 103 59 57.3%
Family: Relationship Breakdown 224 208 85.2%
Other Family Law Problems 68 63 92.6%
Wills and Powers of Attorney 330 228 79.0%
Personal Injury 161 136 88.9%
Hospital Treatment and Release 86 69 84.1%
Threat of Legal Action 51 29 65.9%
Total 5655 3369 59.6%

Table 29 shows the estimated number of problems by problem type if the more stringent standard of both important and day-to-day life having been made difficult are applied. Comparing Tables 5 and 6, the reduction in the number of serious justiciable problems achieved by applying both criteria is not great compared with that achieved by applying the standard of their having made daily life difficult.

Table 29: Justiciable Problems: Important and Causing Difficulty for Daily Life
Problem Type Number of Problems Overall Number of Problems That Were Important to Resolve and Made Daily Life Difficult Per Cent
Consumer 1480 600 40.5%
Employment 1421 929 65.4%
Debt 1444 701 48.5%
Social Assistance 49 38 77.5%
Disability Pensions 48 43 89.6%
Housing 95 63 66.3%
Immigration 35 29 82.9%
Discrimination 91 64 65.9%
Police Action 103 56 54.5%
Family: Relationship Breakdown 224 204 83.6%
Other Family 68 62 91.2%
Wills and Powers of Attorney 330 225 68.2%
Personal Injury 161 135 83.9%
Hospital Treatment and Release 86 69 84.1%
Threat of Legal Action 51 28 54.9%
Total 5655 3234 57.3%


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