Yaira Obstbaum – NSfK ResearchSeminar 2021

(How) can we include questions about crime victimisation questions in a survey about everyday legal problems? – Perspectives for an upcoming Finnish legal needs survey

Yaira Obstbaum, Institute of Criminology and Legal policy, University of Helsinki

A considerable proportion of legal problems of everyday life, and also crime victimisation, occur without the person experiencing them ever seeking assistance from any authorities. Thus, analysing official registers are not a sufficient way to assess the scope of these problems. Victimisation surveys are an important instrument for studying distressing events in life that may fulfil the perquisites of crime, but, are not necessarily reported. Crime victimisation is in this context widely researched in connection to socioeconomic determinants for instance (Kivivuori 2011). Less is known, in the Nordic countries, however, about how crime victimisation intertwined with problems that are of civil legal nature.  Kemp et al. (2007) for instance have, using British self-report surveys, found that self-reported legal problems of everyday life often occur in connection with crime victimisation.  Indeed, disputes over divorce or visiting children, might in some cases include, threats of violence or vice versa (Daigle et al. 2019). Sometimes, however, the legal status of a dispute is not clear: When for instance, is workplace bullying a civil legal matter and when can it be a crime?

Theoretical background

Legal needs surveys are a tradition of surveys asking people about everyday life problems and disputes that may raise civil legal issues, whether or not this is recognized by those facing them, and whether or not any action taken to deal with the problems, involves the legal system (Genn 1999).  The theoretical base of this tradition is in the Access to Justice tradition, that focuses on two basic functions of the justice system: First, individuals should have access to their rights, either through effective defence of their rights or managing their disputes. Second, the justice system should be accessible to all and lead to results that are just both for the individual and for society. (Garth & Capelletti, 1978).

In this context, justiciable problems, or legal problems of everyday life that are the focus of so called legal needs surveys, may concern many areas. Commonly they include consumer-problems, money, debt, housing, neighbors, family-issues, work etc. along with problems experienced in contact with authorities or concerning matters of social benefits (procedural problems etc.)  Legal needs surveys ask about these issues and their possible resolutions – legal or non-legal – and possible needs for support, from people themselves (Pleasence et al. 2019). The logic is in many ways similar to the idea behind the first crime victimization surveys (Sparks et al. 1977)

Although the best solution to these problems is not necessarily one involving the legal system, we may agree that there are more and less desirable solutions to problems; Studies show that is common that no action is taken to deal with problems or that people experiencing problems accept solutions that in some way or another is to their disadvantage.  The inability to find a suitable solution may lead to harmful outcomes or new problems, the nature of which may be legal, but also economic or social; Problems often cluster (Pleasence et al. 2004). Some legal needs surveys, conducted in different countries, have included questions about crime victimization, violent victimization or intimate partner violence. Including questions about victimization in legal needs surveys can be motivated with the strong association that has been found, between justiciable problem experience and crime victimization along with being associated with social factors. (Pleasence & McDonald, 2013; Kemp et al 2007).

The Finnish Everyday Problems, Disputes and Solutions survey

A national legal needs survey – the Everyday Problems, Disputes and Solutions survey (AORR) survey – will be conducted, in Finland in 2021. The survey includes questions about everyday legal problems – problems where the solution may be legal although not regarded as such by everyone experiencing them – such as consumer problems, housing problems, work problems, family issues (will and family breakdown), problems regarding social benefits and authorities. The survey is to some degree a replica of international standards (OECD 2019) adopted to a Finnish context and checked in collaboration with experts in different fields (family law, debt problems etc.). There are also questions about different kinds of crime victimization.


The inclusion of questions of crime victimization in surveys that are primarily focused on civil legal matters, must be planned carefully. The wording and framing of questions about distressing criminal events such as violence, should always be given careful consideration (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2014). Wording is, however, important also, when asking about legal problems of everyday life; Being unfairly sacked from work or facing eviction from one’s home for instance may belong to the harshest episodes of people’s lives. (Pleasence et al. 2019).

Another issue is how validly we can measure crime victimization, in a frame where the main aim is to ask about civil legal matters; Wording cannot be as vast as were the survey focused only on crime victimization. To overcome this problem several experts in victimology surveys have commented on the AORR questionnaire. However, the interpretation of future results must be given much consideration nevertheless, given many of the issues taken up in this short paper.

An important benefit of including questions on crime victimization in legal needs surveys is that it allows the investigation of vicious cycles where civil legal matters and crime victimization occur together, also illuminating overlapping service needs.


Daigle, L. E., Harris, M. N., & Mummert, S. J. (2019). Crime victims and their unmet civil legal needs: Pro bono service provision among private attorneys. Journal of Victimology and Victim Justice, 2(1), 26-46. doi:10.1177/2516606918819293

Garth, Bryant G. and Cappelletti, Mauro, “Access to Justice: The Newest Wave in the Worldwide Movement to Make Rights Effective”(1978). Articles by Maurer Faculty. Paper 1142.http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/facpub/1142

Genn, H. G. (1999). Paths to justice. What people do an think about going to law. Oxford: Hart.

Kemp, V., Pleasence, P., & Balmer, N. J. (2007). The problems of everyday life: Crime and the civil and social justice survey Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

OECD/Open Society Foundations (2019), Legal Needs Surveys and Access to Justice, OECD Publishing, Paris. https://doi.org/10.1787/g2g9a36c-en

Pleasence, P. and H. McDonald (2013), Crime in Context: Criminal Victimisation, Offending, Multiple Disadvantage and the Experience of Civil Law problems. Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales, Sydney.

Pleasence, P. T., Balmer, N. J., & Sandefur, R. L. (2013). Paths to justice: A past, present and future roadmap Centre for Empirical Legal Studies.

Pleasence, P., Balmer, N. J., Buck, A., O’Grady, A., & Genn, H. (2004). Multiple justiciable problems: Common clusters and their social and demographic indicators. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 1(2), 301-329. doi:10.1111/j.1740-1461.2004.00009.x

Kivivuori, J. (2011). Discovery of Hidden Crime. Self-Report Surveys in Criminal Policy Context. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Sparks, Richard, Hazel G. Genn, and David J. Dodd (1977), Surveying Victims (New York: John Wiley).

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2014), Guidelines for Producing Statistics on Violence Against Women, United Nations, New York.