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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Race, Class and Gender Inequality and Access to Civil Justice

Civil justice problems are common and the civil justice gap is wide. Two-thirds of American adults face at least one civil justice problem in any given year, which can result in the loss of their homes, jobs, wages, benefits or custody of their children. Access to a lawful resolution of these problems is severely restricted to only some people and some types of justiciable events. Low-income Americans, for example, received adequate legal resolution for only 14% of the problems they reported. Vulnerable populations are twice as likely to do nothing about their civil justice problems as more advantaged groups. About three-quarters of low-income adults do not seek legal help when they experience civil justice problems. This phenomenon is troubling because unresolved justice issues can lead to additional social, economic and health problems for the people that experience them, as well as their families and communities.

Principal investigator, Tonya L. Brito, professor of law, will launch the “Race, Class, and Gender Inequality and Access to Civil Justice Study,” a pilot project designed to understand racial differences in how Americans handle civil legal problems, why they do and do not turn to law, and with what results. Longitudinal in-depth interviews with 100 individuals in a Midwestern city will record the social characteristics and experiences that bring about differences in how people understand and respond to civil justice problems. This pilot study lays the groundwork for a much larger, multi-state study whose findings will contribute knowledge to the burgeoning access to civil justice scholarly literature. Race and racial inequality are understudied areas in this field and no major qualitative study has explored racial and intersectional differences in how Americans understand and respond to their civil justice problems.

This research project speaks to the growing effort to stimulate a movement to reform American civil justice, potentially mirroring on the civil side the robust and influential movement to reform America’s criminal justice system. Improving access to civil justice requires better knowledge of the factors that shape individuals’ understandings and experiences, including those associated with race, gender, poverty. In designing effective bottom-up targeted interventions to help people solve civil justice problems, it is important to have a more nuanced understanding of the social mechanisms through which people come to hold their beliefs about the law and legal system.


Tonya Brito, professor of law