J.J. Prescott's (Mich.) recent essay, The Challenges of Calculating the Benefits of Providing
Access to Legal Services, describes how
policymakers have empirically
sought to calculate the benefits of providing legal services to low-income individuals in the past, as well as suggestions on how such calculations can be improved. An excerpted abstract follows:
"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."
The paper might be of particular interest to those looking for an empirical project (albeit a difficult one). Recognizing "the need [for] some means of estimating the non-monetary benefits produced by government services," Prescott focuses on a "survey-based technique—the contingent valuation (“CV”) method—that can be used to measure the benefits of services that are rarely traded in markets." The paper then helpfully sketches how such a study might be designed and implemented.