About 8 months ago I made the decision to become a lawyer. My interest in the field spawned gradually over the last 6 years running a local media company. For one reason or another, I found myself one day down the rabbit hole learning about the legal businesses and institutions that existed in Mandurah, and I came across Peel Community Legal Services.
Like many not for profit organisations, a large budget for marketing is not available to PCLS, so perhaps it was understandable that I didn’t know they existed, and why many in the local community don’t know they’re here.
In a nutshell, they can assist anyone in the area on a low income with most legal matters, and with family domestic violence they can assist anyone regardless of household income. They’re also able to assist any tenants with various issues relating to their tenancy.
It would be unlikely to be able to navigate through life without needing some legal assistance at one time or another, or knowing someone who might need some assistance. So it may pay to keep this organisation in mind, both in terms of being able to utilise or recommend their services when the need arises, but also in terms of advocating for keeping such a vital service in our community funded.
I had a chat recently with the PCLS General Manager, Kathy Johnson, in order to share with the wider Peel community what exactly they do, and who they can assist.
What is Peel Community Legal Services and what does it do?
We provide general legal advice to people on low income or people in a family domestic violence situation, and advocacy and support to access Centrelink, or those sort of things.
What does advocacy support mean?
Helping people fill out forms, helping people negotiate the process, knowing where to put the form, with any agency they might be having trouble with. We’ve helped with ombudsman applications, complaints,
How what is the income cut off to be able to access assistance from PCLS?
If you’re a tenant it’s not income tested,
For legal or lawyer issues, the test is $50,000 family annual income or less [household income], but with tenancy [issues] it’s for anyone who is a tenant having issues. We don’t [advocate on behalf of] landlords.
What sort of tenancy issues do you assist with?
Bond issues, getting your bond back, termination notices, property reports, rent arrears, negotiating to pay back rent arrears. We negotiate with housing authority too, for people in housing authority rentals.
The whole point [of the tenancy advocacy work] is to keep people in their homes, to negotiate with landlords, or the department of housing, to stay in their homes.
I understand you met with a number of property managers in the area recently.
We told them we just want the law and the act to be fulfilled, and the rights and responsibilities of everyone, and if they’ve (the tenants) done the wrong thing, well they’ve done the wrong thing, we’re going to tell them that. But we also need to negotiate, keep someone in their house if we can.
[With regards to the property managers,] it’s not us and them and we’re not out to get them.
With domestic violence assistance, is that income tested?
No. If it’s family domestic violence we don’t even ask income. So if someone is experiencing that they’re not even asked. This is because you may not be able to access the income of your partner.
How do people get in touch with PCLS, because obviously there can be safety concerns in a domestic violence situation?
We do go to Pat Thomas house, the refuge, and we do outreach, and see clients. All the community organisations know that if they have a person in that situation that we will go see them if we need to. They just need to call, we will go to their organisation to the client. We wouldn’t normally go to someone’s house, because there’s safety issues for us around that, but we would see them at another agency, or at the legal service here.
If they don’t feel safe to come here though, … I mean,
If you walk in to a legal service and someone sees you, especially in a small town like Mandurah, [you may not] feel safe to come here, so we do do outreach at the family relationship centre as well, so they’ll make appointments for clients of theirs, and we’ll go there.
And that keeps the meeting discreet?
Yes. We also do outreach to Pinjarra and Waroona, we go there every month.
What is the catchment area? Who can use your services?
The whole Peel region, so that’s out to Boddington, out to Serpentine, Jarahdale. It’s a huge area.
What happens if someone comes to you for help but the other party has already contacted you and there’s a conflict of interest?
We’ll refer them to another agency, like SCALES in Rockingham, or Southwest in Bunbury… We’ll try to do a warm referral. SCALES and Bunbury do the same with us. If they have someone who’s conflicted out, they’ll refer them to us.
If I’m confident I would fit under the $50,000 a year means test, and I’ve got a legal matter that I want some advice on, do you have only certain legal issues you’ll talk to me about or can I just come with any legal concern, like if I was assaulted, or I was in a car accident …?
Any legal concern. The only thing is we don’t represent people in court.
What happens if I do think I’ll need to go to court?
We would help you initially, and then if you couldn’t afford it we would help with the legal aid application, or a law access application. Law Access is an organisation that will help link a client with a pro bono lawyer. Pro bono means for free.
What about wills and things like that?
We can help with that, but we won’t do a will because there’s storage and other issues. But we’ll help people with information on wills, with what’s best to have in a will, but we won’t do a will. Same with EPAs and Advance Health Directives. We’ll help people with those, but we won’t do them.
If we can’t [assist in a matter], if we don’t have the resources or we can’t fit someone in, we’ll refer. We’ve got a list, the staff here have been around for a while, and know all the local agencies and what they do,
Where does support for PCLS come from?
From the Commonwealth Government, from the State Government, and from the Department of Mining, Industrial Regulation and Safety [DMIRS, formerly Dept of Commerce]. So that’s where our funding comes from.
And there’s some local organisations and businesses that have assisted over the years, like PEACH , Personnel Employed at Alcoa Charity Help. They gave us some money to replace our carpet and blinds in our office, and that was last year, and a lockable cabinet for our documents. City of Mandurah have given us a small grant to do some research about housing options for older people.
We have 10 staff total, we don’t have any full time staff, and that’s not because we don’t want to, it’s because we can’t afford to. We’ve got 3 solicitors, 2 that are 9 days a fortnight, and our principle solicitor who is Michael, he works 5 days a fortnight, but he’s on call if I need him. He has his own business, but if I need him or the others need him, he’ll answer. And then we have 2 advocates, and the admin staff, there’s 5 of them. And a bookkeeper 1 day a week.
I don’t think we’re as well known as we should be. I here a lot of people say ‘ we didn’t even know you were here, we didn’t even realise this service existed’. I’ve worked in not for profits a lot, and I didn’t even really know that a generalist legal service existed. So I think a lot of people don’t realise they can come and get that help.
Are there any legal changes on the horizon that the local community should be aware of?
Changes to the Residential Tenancy Act with regards to family domestic violence, on breaking leases. It will be easier to break a lease if there’s evidence of domestic violence. It’s also going to be easier to change leases, and to change locks.
How long is the wait to get an appointment at PCLS?
About two weeks. If it’s a crisis we can normally fit people immediately. Normally if it’s a crisis we’d say come through an organisation. If they (a local community help organisation) have a client that they think really needs to see us now, if they call, if the organisation calls, we’ll fit them in quickly.
Other developments in the future?
This year we’re going to focus more on community legal education, getting out into the community, giving people information, doing information sessions,
On dealing with youth:
We go in to schools if we’re asked to. We’ve been to Calvary House a few times, which is a youth crisis accommodation place, and Passages; we’re going to be doing stuff with them this year.
What sort of things do you speak with youth about?
Debt, phones, that sort of thing, what to do if Police stop you, the implication of ignoring your fines, how that can affect the rest of your life, what sexting is and the consequences of that, which is a big one. Also tenancy issues for youth.
PCLS is a not for profit with charity status, so donations are welcome, and are tax deductible.
Getting in touch with Peel Community Legal Services:
Ph: 9581 4511 .
Website contact form: peelcls.com.au/contact/
Location: Suite 6, 2 Sutton Street
Mandurah: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday
9:00am to 4:30pm (closed for lunch 12:30pm – 1pm)
Pinjarra: 1st Wednesday of each month
Waroona: 2nd Wednesday of each month