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Discussion Papers

The Challenges of Calculating the Benefits of Providing Access to Legal Services
JJ Prescott

In this invited essay, I explore how policymakers and other public-interested actors have empirically calculated the benefits of providing low-income access to civil legal services in the past, and how they might improve upon existing methods going forward. My argument proceeds in five parts. First, I briefly explain the optimal approach to allocating public funds from a welfare economics perspective. Second, I introduce the challenges of valuing “benefits” in the context of the public provision of legal services. Third, I summarize and critique existing attempts to quantify the benefits of and need for legal services funding. Specifically, I review, criticize, and try to build on two major civil justice needs studies, one published by the Legal Services Corporation in 2005 (reissued in 2007) and the other by the American Bar Association in 1994. Fourth, I briefly, but critically, assess the arguments on the other side of the legal services debate, where commentators regularly rely on anecdotes and empirically unverified assumptions to argue for reducing the public provision of legal services. Finally, I describe the basic methods that cost-benefit analysis employs to crack the difficult nut of measuring the value of publicly provided services generally, and I sketch a few ideas for how a researcher might design and conduct a study using these ideas to measure (at least some of) the benefits of providing access to legal services to low-income individuals.

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