Peel's most-vulnerable residents now have access to free legal advice at their doorstep, with the launch of a new face-to-face technology service in a West Australian first.
In May, theMandurah Mail reportedon the barriers local residents faced accessing legal advice with no permanent Legal Aid officer based in the region.
But, a new first-of-its-kind service has been launched by Legal Aid WA in regional and remote locations, to help disadvantaged clients who face difficulties accessing appointments from disability, mobility, poverty, health and remoteness.
When I was in the process of identifying locations for these offices, Mandurah was top of the list.Legal Aid WA managing solicitor of legal practice development Helen DeBrito
Legal Aid WA managing solicitor of legal practice development Helen DeBrito said the service would fill a need in Mandurah.
"When I was in the process of identifying locations for these offices, Mandurah was top of the list," she said.
Ms DeBrito said the virtual office appointments were being filled every week in Mandurah.
"They are being taken up very quickly," she said.
"We are trying to accommodate everyone that we can."
Ms DeBrito said the face-to-face service helped clients feel comfortable.
"It is proving to be very effective in building that connection in being able to give meaningful advice and help people," she said.
Going into the city can be really daunting when people's lives are chaotic and difficult.Legal Aid WA managing solicitor of legal practice development Helen DeBrito
"People will come in thinking they are asking advice about a criminal law matter and very quickly it will become apparent there are serious elder abuse or domestic violence issues, because our lawyers ask the questions and build that connection.
"We know the earlier we can get involved in a legal problem, the more effective we can be in helping the client come up with a more meaningful resolution.
"We've had neighbourhood disputes, mortgage stress, elder abuse, domestic violence issues, children's issues, debts.
"We are able to make a really positive difference."
Ms DeBrito said the service would assist Mandurah residents who could not travel to Perth for appointments.
"Some people can't travel into the city because of poverty or health issues," she said.
"Going into the city can be really daunting when people's lives are chaotic and difficult.
"They are coping with a lot of stress and trauma.
"This issue removes those barriers and provides a face to face service in a local community centre."
'As close to face-to-face as possible'
Ms DeBrito said she could not say if Mandurah would receive permanent Legal Aid officers in the region.
"I can't really comment on what the future may hold," she said.
"It provides as close as a face-to-face experience as we possibly can.
"I know there are amazing people delivering services but I know there is always room for more."
The Mandurah office, which opened on May 8, is run by volunteers and located within the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) on Scholl Street.
CAB WA chief executive Kathryn Lawrence said the service would be of great benefit to Peel.
"If you already can't feed your family, and you have to jump on a bus or train, and put your kids into childcare just to get into the city for a half-hour legal advice appointment, it can be quite difficult," she said.
"This service can also assess people for grants of legal aid if they need ongoing service - it fills that slot in Mandurah."
Before this initiative, Peel Community Legal Services (PCLS) was the region's only free community legal centre.
PCLS general manager Kathleen Johnson said the service would benefit other providers in the region, when they could not assist with a matter.
"There is a large unmet need for legal assistance in the Peel region and centres such as PCLS are always under pressure to provide services to low income and vulnerable clients who are unable to afford private advice," she said.
"We support the establishment of the virtual offices and believe that they fill some of the gap in legal assistance services in the region."
State Attorney General John Quigley said the other virtual offices were based in Armadale, Joondalup, Midland, Esperance, Karratha, Leonora, Halls Creek, Meekatharra and Fitzroy Crossing.
"The network of virtual offices is only the latest in a series of innovations launched by Legal Aid WA over the past 12 months and I commend the agency and partner organisations involved for rolling out this brilliant new initiative," he said.
"These virtual offices will go a long wayto help break down the barriers for many West Australians, particularly those living in the regions, so they can access legal services and support in their communities."
Clients can ask questions regarding family, criminal or civil law.
The 40-minute Mandurah appointments run from 9am to 1pm every Wednesday, with a maximum of five clients a day.