Celinda Lake, Brian Nienaber
Voices for Civil Justice
November 7, 2013
Lake Research Partners and the Tarrance Group, under contract with the Public Welfare and Kresge Foundations as part of its funding for Voices for Civil Justice, conducted public opinion research on expanding civil legal Aid.
The research, which included four focus groups and a subsequent nationwide survey, reveals insights about framing, messages, and specific language to use and to avoid, including some preliminary insights into how best to articulate both the populations served, and the services provided, by civil legal aid. This research is an expansion on research conducted by Belden, Russonello, and Stewart in 2000.
Results of the research include the following:
- Civil Legal Aid remains a largely invisible issue for the American public. More than one-third (36%) have never heard or have no opinion toward Civil Legal Aid – an improvement from 2000, when 49% were unaware of Civil Legal Aid services. However, while current survey data reveals positive general impressions of the term “Civil Legal Aid”, the qualitative (focus groups) research highlights just how shallow those impressions are. Most participants were unaware of any type of government funded services for civil legal purposes.
- Despite the public’s lack of familiarity with Civil Legal Aid, over eight-in-ten (82%) 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.
- In addition to updating the research on public perceptions of Civil Legal Aid, this study explored two new fronts: support for increasing funding for Civil Legal Aid and reactions to arguments for and against increasing funding for the program.
- While the 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 more difficult threshold, to be sure, in the current economic environment, and given voters’ tax-sensitivity and skepticism of government-funded and -operated programs. Even so, the results of this question are quite promising, with nearly half of voters in support of increased funding, and a majority supports increased funding after being exposed to arguments in favor of—and against—this proposition.
- The study also examined various arguments related to increasing funding for Civil Legal Aid, as well as the most effective thematic frame for positioning this debate. The findings from this work should help inform advocates’ proactive communications strategy as well as inoculate against potential attacks, barriers, or resistance.
- In contrast to previous recommendations, this study suggests that, with limited time to convey an argument, and after stating the core value that fairness in the justice system should not depend on how much money a person has, it is more important to outline some of the specific services provided by Civil Legal Aid rather than detailing the populations that receive those services. Times have also changed, and in much of our work we are finding less resonance with the idea of helping the “vulnerable” since voters believe they have to go no further than their kitchen table to find people who need help.
The report also contains detailed suggestions on how the results of the pubic opinion research can be used most effectively in increasing awareness of, and support for, civil legal aid.