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After many years of inattention, policymakers are now focused on troubling statistics indicating that members of poor and minority groups are less likely than their higher-income counterparts to seek help when they experience a civil justice problem. Indeed, roughly three-quarters of the poor do not seek legal help when they experience a civil justice problem, and inaction is even more pronounced among poor blacks. Past work on access to civil justice largely relies on unconfirmed assumptions about the behavior patterns and needs of those experiencing civil justice problems. At a time when increased attention and resources are being devoted to questions of racial and socioeconomic access to civil justice, it is critical to understand the underlying causes of the disparities in justice utilization.

This Article uses original, empirical data to provide novel explanations for these puzzling inaction statistics. The data reveal previously undetected connections that are crucial for creating effective access to justice policy. The Article shows how negative past experiences with, and perceptions of, the criminal justice system play a crucial role in decision-making about seeking help for civil justice problems. Further, this Article is the first to explore racial differences in civil justice utilization among the poor, and to explain how degree of trust is a key explanation for these racial differences. Based on the findings, the Article proposes a paradigm shift in how to shape access to justice policy.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Administration of justice, Civil procedure, Poor, Equality before the law, Discrimination in criminal justice administration