One of northern Western Australia’s only community legal centres has been forced to close its doors to hundreds of clients as a lack of resources continues to hinder its ability to meet community demand.
Kimberley Community Legal Services (KCLS) covers the Kimberley towns of Kununurra and Broome, with eight lawyers servicing an area the size of Victoria.
Chief executive Christine Robinson said the not-for-profit organisation supported some of the country’s most vulnerable people — mostly Indigenous clients with highly complex needs.
Ms Robinson said the struggle to meet demand was the most acute she had seen in her 30-year career.
KCLS closed its doors to new clients last year, unless it was an emergency case, after its waiting list blew out to six months in Kununurra.
Remote community outreach has also been cut, despite servicing the organisation’s “highest needs” clients.
Ms Robinson said the situation was demoralising for her team.
“All we can do is be a bandaid,” she said.
“We can respond to the emergencies, we can deal with critical matters, but … we don’t have the resources to get to the heart of some of the problems.”
KCLS is among 165 local community legal centres pushing for more funding as part of a review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership.
The partnership is a five-year agreement for how the attorney-general will fund vital legal assistance services, a significant source of funding for the centres.
Community Legal Centres Australia said the current plan did not adequately consider the unique challenges remote centres faced.
Staff in caravan parks
The “single biggest issue” the legal service faced was its lack of access to staff housing and low wages, Ms Robinson said.
“We recently put out a recruitment round, and I spoke to one potential applicant, and they would have been highly suitable,” she said.
“He wanted $30,000 on top of the wage that we could offer him to come to this region because that’s what he placed the value … for working remotely.”
Ms Robinson said additional funding could help her centre provide more competitive wages.
Unlike government-run Legal Aid services, community legal centres could not access the same incentives such as housing, remote allowances, airfares, and electricity subsidies, Ms Robinson said.
She said the situation had become so dire that KCLS had a staff member living in a caravan park and previously lost eight applicants for a job due to lack of housing.
“We need increased staffing, and to have increased staffing, we need increased funding,” Ms Robinson said.
“But without access to adequate housing, nothing matters.”
Remote challenges unique
Community Legal Centres Australia chair Gerard Brody said centres required a doubling of overall funding to $125 million annually to meet demand.
Nationwide, 179,000 people were supported by community legal centres last year, but more than 200,000 people were turned away.
“Funding at the moment does not really adequately reflect or prioritise the depth and complexity of legal need in remote communities,” he said.
Mr Brody said there “isn’t really a justification” for the pay disparity community lawyers faced compared to other lawyers under their relevant awards.
A spokesperson for Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the federal government recognised the “extraordinary pressure” community legal centres were under.
They said the government would “consider how future arrangements can better provide access to justice for all who need it” following the final report of National Legal Assistance Partnership, pointing to $21 million in one-off funding provided to Aboriginal Legal Services last year.
The report is due later this month.