Delivering access to justice at the coalface of disadvantage

Delivering access to justice at the coalface of disadvantage

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Rewards and challenges in equal measure await those who are selected for Victoria Legal Aid’s New Lawyer’s Program, says Lawyer Michael Haralambous.

About to finish his first six-month rotation on the New Lawyers Program in Dandenong before heading to Bendigo, Michael says he enjoys the fast-paced tempo of his role.

‘I’m presently on a criminal law rotation and spend two to three days per week on duty at court.

‘On a typical day I’ll start in the office and walk over to court with colleagues. On a mentions day I will spend the first one to two hours seeing as many clients as possible before I’m called in to court.

‘From 11 am it’s a bit of blur before court breaks at 1 pm for lunch. Lunch is the most important part of the day in Dandenong, and the area’s rich multicultural diversity means you have the option of Polish pierogi, Afghan breads and barbecue, Lebanese pizzas and Sri Lankan or Indian curries.

‘Court starts back at 2 pm and I spend my time rushing between court rooms, prosecutors and clients to try and get everyone out before the Magistrates need to pick up their kids at 4 pm. When you’ve seen everyone, it’s back to the office to debrief and unload your files.’

Lawyer Michael Haralambous
Above: Lawyer Michael Haralambous

Challenges for New Lawyer’s Program lawyers are many and include workload and emotionally taxing cases.

‘The sheer number of people you see in a day can feel overwhelming at times,’ said Michael

‘You get used to witnessing clients at their most vulnerable, angry, sad and relieved.

‘For some clients your interaction with them will be a life defining moment, whereas for others, you are just another part of a system that has failed them.

‘In the face of all this emotion, it can be a challenge to make sure you are debriefing and continuing to feel human. This is where my colleagues excel at being mentors, counsellors and friends.’

Michael believes his job plays a vital role in the community.

‘Legal Aid is essential in an adversarial system to ensure access to justice.

‘As a duty lawyer, I am on the frontline of the criminal justice system and often the first referral point for drug dependency, mental health or even physical health issues.

‘The forensic decisions I make and the advice I dispense to my clients are integral to the community’s confidence in the justice system.’

Quizzed on what attracted him to complete a placement in rural Victoria, Michael says he can only see an upside.

‘One of the best opportunities of the program is the chance to dabble commitment-free in regional living.

I’m about to move to Bendigo for six months and am looking forward to working in a smaller court and having a 10-minute walk to the office.

‘Victoria Legal Aid have paid accommodation options for each of the regional offices, ensuring that a stint in the regions is financially risk-free.

‘There are few jobs in Victoria where you have the flexibility to choose the community you work in, and there are even less opportunities to try a six-month placement before you are required to commit to a permanent position.’

Pressed on what satisfaction he derives from his work, Michael says you can’t top the feeling of making a tangible difference in a person’s life through your actions.

‘There are countless rewards to being a Victoria Legal Aid lawyer, but none tops the immense satisfaction when you meet a client in a state of distress and crisis, are able to help them understand and navigate their options, and see their relief when you take control and finalise their court matters.

‘As a duty lawyer you become part of the court infrastructure, and for all its challenges, it is hugely rewarding when you are able to marshall court resources and structures to appropriately respond to a client’s needs, and secure them just outcomes.

‘Recently I had a duty lawyer client who was pregnant, spoke no English and had a 12-month-old child in tow.

‘She had been charged with family violence offences, but after reading the case particulars, it soon became clear she was the victim of persistent abuse to her husband of two years.

‘I negotiated the withdrawal of her criminal charges with the prosecutor, linked her in with family violence support services and had her matter dealt with expediently to ensure she was out of the court before lunch.

‘While it was frustrating she had been charged, I was able to empower her with appropriate advice on her legal options and ensure she was diverted to services that were able to effectively respond to her situation.

‘Clients like these keep the fire in my belly and are a constant reminder of my role in ensuring access to justice for the most vulnerable in our community.’

More information 

Find out more about out New Lawyers Program

Find out more about Careers at Victoria Legal Aid.