Getting to know – Matthew Harding, Dean of the Melbourne Law School

“Education and research have value that never changes”

Toward the end of 2022, Professor Matthew Harding was appointed the Dean of the Melbourne Law School. Following nine months as the Interim Dean, and a global search to appoint the successor to Professor Pip Nicholson, Matthew Harding will lead the Law School to enable and equip the next generation of legal professionals.

Photo by Greta Robenstone, 2023.

Matthew began his tertiary studies at the University of Melbourne, where he studied Arts and Law. . Matthew recalls that, as a student, he was deeply interested in history and seriously considered pursuing a career as an historian. Hoping to learn more about his own heritage, Matthew wrote his honours dissertation on the colonial and post-colonial history of Sri Lanka. Matthew’s mother was a member of an ethnic minority group in the former colony, and his thesis allowed him to look “at the effect that the independence movement had” on ordinary people “trying to find their feet in the new country, once the British left.” Despite this passion for  history, Matthew was compelled to pursue his interest in the law.

“I was never terribly excited about how you draft a contract.”

Matthew graduated from the Melbourne Law School in 1998 with his LLB, before working briefly as an articled clerk with Arthur Robinson & Hedderwicks (now Allens). Recalling his time as a junior lawyer, Matthew admits that he “was never terribly excited about how you draft a contract.” Despite having the opportunity to pursue a career as a practising lawyer, Matthew felt drawn to further study, and a career in the legal academy. In 2000, Matthew began his studies at Oxford University where he completed the Bachelor of Civil Law and, later, the Doctor of Philosophy.

While Matthew never felt particularly passionate about legal practice, what “really excited” Matthew “was all the intellectual questions that underpinned various bodies of law.” He was drawn to research which could explain the “ethical responsibilities of a person operating within a contract” or the “moral point of saying that someone is owed a fiduciary duty.” Matthew pursued subjects in jurisprudence throughout his BCL, and began to develop expertise in matters relating to trusts and fiduciary duties – or as Matthew describes it: “equity and trusts with a philosophical bent.”

Photo courtesy of the NUS, 2020.

Since concluding his studies at Oxford, Matthew has held various academic positions, including posts at the University of Toronto, Queen’s University Belfast, the University of Otago, and the University of the Western Cape. Matthew has also held various leadership positions within the Melbourne Law School, where he has acted as the Deputy Dean and Head of Department. As an internationally recognised expert on the law of charities and non-profit organisations, he continues to publish regularly on the legal and theoretical issues surrounding charitable organisations, and the various ways in which the law of equity and trust operates in society today.

In 2014, Matthew published a major monograph titled Charity Law and the Liberal State which, he explains, “developed a theoretical account of why it’s justified for the State to treat charities in the way it does.” Given the various benefits and privileges that organisations are granted once they achieve ‘charitable’ status, Matthew’s work has broad implications for the various charitable organisations which serve a crucial role in helping those in need. What kind of public benefit – if any at all – must an organisation provide before it becomes a ‘charity’? Should charities be able to pick and choose who they provide assistance to? Can private philanthropy ever be described as ethical, given its lack of coordination? Matthew’s research aims to answer these questions and more.

What “we’ve now learned from that experience, and what we want to commit to afresh.”

When Matthew isn’t reading, writing, or teaching, he will be leading the strategic direction of the law school as its Dean. Having worked hard to steer MLS through the Covid pandemic, Matthew thinks the University must consider “what we’ve now learned from that experience, and what we want to commit to afresh.” While many things changed throughout the pandemic, Matthew believes that the educational and academic mission of the University, and the Law School, remains the same, because “education and research have value that does not change.”

Photo courtesy of the Melbourne Law School, 2022.

Matthew feels that the Law School’s academic mission is centred around equipping students to “take the wider view” as legally trained members of society. Matthew understands the need to provide students with technical knowledge of the law, but feels that this is “not all that is involved in being a good lawyer.” “Legally trained individuals must strive to be ethical people, who aim to be virtuous in all their professional dealings.” While many law schools and legal institutions around the world aim to produce ethical practitioners, Matthew believes that these institutions should always strive “to do better,” and points to recent examples where “lawyers have failed, either wilfully or through laziness, to take the wider view and act ethically” as motivation for law schools to improve.

“Throw yourself into everything that’s on offer”

Matthew sees teaching and learning on campus as a fundamental part of achieving this mission. By learning and interacting together in person, Matthew believes students can “bring their whole self to the classroom,” and be prepared to make real, ethical contributions to society. “No one ever brings their whole self when they’re on Zoom.” While Matthew understands the difficulties that a return to campus might bring for some students, he feels that University leadership must “get out and explain” the reasons and benefits for the return, “and offer those reasons as clearly and as often as we can.” In doing so, Matthew hopes “for staff and students to reconnect on campus.”

Matthew encourages all members of the MLS community to get involved and make the Law School a fun, vibrant place to work and study in 2023. By throwing the Law School’s support behind various extra-curricular and co-curricular activities, Matthew hopes to give all members of our community a chance to reconnect.

“Throw yourself into everything that’s on offer,” Matthew says, “this is the year to do it.”