Lawyer wants more than “Band-Aid” for vulnerable

Lawyer Melissa Hardham. Photo Ben Schade.
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A Werribee based lawyer is committed to helping the disadvantaged. Ben Schade reports.

A Werribee based lawyer says she’s determined to work for change to address the causes of disadvantage rather than reacting to its symptoms.

Melissa Hardham, 50, says she believes crime is “often a consequence of disadvantage”, and it is important to work to “create a solution, not just Band-Aid the consequences.”

Having had a strong social justice conscience from a young age, Hardham felt compelled to pursue criminal law to stand up for society’s “most disadvantaged and misunderstood people.”   

Yet she ultimately came to the realisation that her clients would be better off in a rehab and health service, not a criminal justice system.

“It didn’t sit comfortably with me that my income depended on someone doing the wrong thing, possibly as a reaction to a broader health or mental health issue” she says.

Hardham currently works at WestJustice, a community legal service based in Melbourne’s western suburbs, as the director of policy and community Development.

At WestJustice, she has been involved with programs such as Fare Go, an initiative to improve the access to education for young people who find public transport prohibitively expensive.

In 2008, Hardham left private practice and set up a legal service with The First Step, a St Kilda-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.

Hardham says it was “much more satisfying” to provide not only legal services but support in areas of mental and general health and drug and alcohol issues.

“We were able to manage those issues holistically … it was a vital services in helping people rebuild their lives,” she says.

Hardham says she inspired by the resilience and determination of the people she has worked with despite the hardship they have faced.

Photo Ben Schade.

“You’d expect them to be devoid of hope and broken”, she says, but “they still have hope that life can be different and that makes the work worthy.”

Hardham continues to be a strong believer in health-justice partnerships, having done similar work in far-north Queensland with Indigenous Australians for six years.

She says she doesn’t feel like she could ever again work in a setting that wasn’t actively contributing to positive social change.

“Systems let people down so often, I don’t know how I would go not being part of the mechanism trying to change the system” she says.