Exploring the Justice Gap: the barriers Northeast Ohio residents face in the legal system

During 2020 and 2021, The Center for Community Solutions collaborated with Legal Aid Society of Cleveland to examine legal and other needs in five counties in Northeast Ohio. An integral piece of this assessment was surveying nearly 500 residents across the region. Residents across Cuyahoga, Lorain, Ashtabula, Geauga, and Lake Counties provided crucial information about their current struggles, potential legal needs, and barriers to working with the courts.

Most respondents experienced multiple issues with the court system

Respondents were asked to consider a list of twelve problems that people may get legal help to solve, and to indicate if they were experiencing any of these problems. From this list, 61.3% of the respondents reported dealing with at least one of these problems, and most experienced more than one, with the average number of problems experienced being 3.1. Most of the top issues were related to financial burden, a finding that has been echoed elsewhere in Community Solutions’ research. The most common reported issues were:

How the Justice Gap leads to court barriers in civil cases

According to the most recent annual report from the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, there were a total of 33,831 new cases or reactivations in 2019. Of these new cases, 20,304 (60 percent) were civil cases, which means that residents had to secure legal counsel on their own. This is an important distinction from criminal legal cases, in which defendants have a constitutional right to an attorney for their representation. This often leads to individuals not receiving the legal help they need in civil cases, a phenomenon called the Justice Gap. The Justice Gap is “the difference between the civil needs of low-income Americans and the resources available to meet those needs”, according to the non-profit Legal Services Corporation (LSC), who also found that 71 percent of low-income households experienced a civil legal problem in 2016, yet 81 percent of civil legal problems received inadequate or no legal help.

Eighty-one percent of civil legal problems received inadequate or no legal help.

Understanding the Justice Gap requires exploring barriers to working with the courts. In our sample of 491 respondents, just over half (51.9 percent) reported experiencing a barrier to working with the courts, and among those respondents, the average number of barriers experienced was 4.

What are the most common reported barriers?

This may not seem like a particularly big deal, however, according to LSC, the number one reason for individuals not seeking out professional legal help is “deciding to deal with a problem on one’s own.” This would seem to indicate that for any number of reasons, it is often too difficult to overcome the barriers to working with the civil legal system for assistance.

Residents with low-income or disability are mostly likely to report legal issues

While a significant proportion of respondents reported difficulties in their lives and in connecting with the civil legal system, these difficulties were not experienced uniformly. Households that reported annual incomes of less than $25,000, and households with a person with a disability had significantly greater rates of reporting legal issues. Households with an older adult (over the age of 65), however, were not associated with an increase in the presence of legal issues.

Looking at geography, a significantly greater percentage of respondents living in Cuyahoga County who described their neighborhood as “urban” also reported having at least one legal issue.

Over half of respondents believed that the civil legal system could help them with their problems at least some of the time

These findings show who needs the most help with civil legal needs, and who needs the most assistance in reducing barriers to accessing that help. Over half (57 percent) of respondents believed that the civil legal system could help them with their problems at least some of the time, and another 22 percent were unsure. This evidences that people want assistance, and the Northeast Ohio area is particularly fortunate to have the Legal Aid Society working to connect people to the legal resources they need.