'Don't have the staff': Peel legal service calls for funding certainty as 1000 people turned away

The Peel region's only free community legal service has turned away more than 1000 disadvantaged people seeking advice in less than a year, prompting a call for funding certainty.

Peel Community Legal Services (Peel CLS) is an important resource in the community, offering free legal advice to low-income residents, mostly regarding family law.

The not-for-profit receives federal funding from the Attorney-General's Department as part of the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services, which is due to expire on June 30, 2020.

Peel CLS general manager Kathleen Johnson said she is unsure whether the centre will receive funding after 2020.

We really don't know what's going to happen.

Peel CLS general manager Kathleen Johnson

"We are the only place in Peel where people can access free legal advice," she said.

"We really don't know what's going to happen.

"We only know we're safe to 2020 - we are a non-for-profit relying on funding.

"There's a real uncertainty around the funding. Even the tenancy funding, we don't know what's going to happen with that either."

Centre's limited resources 

Ms Johnson said the centre was expected to cover the entire Peel region, including Boddington, Serpentine, Jarrahdale, Mandurah and Pinjarra, with only three part-time lawyers.

"We go to Pinjarra and Waroona once a month," she said.

"We don't go to Boddington, Serpentine and Jarrahdale - it's just too far."

Ms Johnson said the centre had referred 1272 clients on to other services from July 1, 2018, to March 31, 2019.

It means that anyone wanting to access Legal Aid has to travel.

Peel CLS general manager Kathleen Johnson

"We don't have enough staff - we're turning people away," she said.

"With some, we couldn't help them so have had to refer them to someone else.

"A lot of them we could have (dealt with), but we just don't have the staff for it."

Ms Johnson said there was no Legal Aid office in Mandurah, meaning their service was even more important to the community.

"They (Legal Aid WA) come down to the court but there is no-one based here," she said.

"It means that anyone wanting to access Legal Aid has to travel.

"That is a difficulty for a lot of people."

In WA, there are Legal Aid offices based in Perth, Bunbury, Albany, Kalgoorlie, Geraldton, South Hedland, Broome, Kununurra and Christmas Island.

'No suggestion funding will reduce'

Peel CLS also receives state funding from both the Department of Justice, and tenancy funding from the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety.

Attorney General Christian Porter said there will be a new commonwealth funding arrangement after June 2020.

"The National Mechanism will be a unified administrative mechanism that provides quarantined funding to legal aid commissions, community legal centres (CLCs) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services," he said.

This funding is provided to Legal Aid WA, which determines the level of funding allocated to each provider.

To increase funding to the Peel service would require the commonwealth or the state to allocate additional funding.

Legal Aid WA director Graham Hill

Legal Aid WA director Graham Hill said there was no suggestion that state or commonwealth funding would cease or be reduced.

"Due to the growing legal need in the region, Peel CLS receives one of the highest allocations of available CLC funding in WA, exceeding other regional CLC's including the Goldfields, Geraldton and the Kimberley," he said.

"To increase funding to the Peel service would require the commonwealth or the state to allocate additional funding."

Western Australia's Attorney General John Quigley said legal centre assistance is often in high demand, and was appropriate to prioritise funding to those who need it most.

"The Peel CLS received $477,447 from State community legal centres funding in 2018-19," he said.

"In addition, the Department of Commerce provides funding to the Peel Community Legal Services for the delivery of tenant advocacy and education as part of the broader Tenancy Advice and Education Services (TAES) program.

"In 2018-19, the Peel Community Legal Services received $109,697 under the TAES program."