A prominent Victorian barrister has criticised Centrelink’s robo-debt recovery program as an ‘elaborate sham’ and wants to challenge the scheme in the Federal Court.
Gavin Silbert, QC, who retired as the state’s chief crown prosecutor in March, told Fairfax Media that the Department of Human Services had ignored its legal obligations and was acting like a bully towards some of the nation’s most vulnerable people.
Mr Silbert has been providing pro bono advice to a client that he knew, who was asked by Centrelink to repay a debt of $10,230.97, accrued between 2010 and 2013. His repeated requests for explanations on how the debt was calculated have been ignored and his client last week received a letter threatening to impose interest charges on the original debt.
Mr Silbert is keen to launch Federal Court action to test the legal basis of the robo-debt program and the Government’s apparent unwillingness to provide particulars.
“I’m itching to get this before a court,” he told Fairfax Media.
The robo-debt program, introduced by the Coalition government, calculates debt by taking a fortnightly average rather than discovering the exact amount that was claimed.
Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen defended the robo-debt recovery scheme and also explained that a review by the Commonwealth Ombudsman had found that the method of calculation complied with all of the relevant legislation.
“Of the thousands of DHS payment cases that go the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), the vast majority of decisions made by the department are affirmed,” Mr Jongen told Fairfax Media.
“When decisions are set aside or varied it’s almost always because new evidence has been provided by the customer or obtained by the department.”
Earlier this year, Professor Terry Carney, a member of the AAT for 40 years, said that robo-debt recovery often involved enforcement of “illegal” debts that were sometimes inflated or non-existent.
Prof Carney explained in an academic paper that the program calculates welfare recipients’ income, and averages it over fortnightly periods rather than discovering their actual income for each and every fortnightly period. The latter, he says, is the proper basis for calculating the debt.
He says when Centrelink asks for payment of alleged debts or evidence to disprove them, “most vulnerable alleged debtors will simply throw up their hands, assume Centrelink knows that there really is a debt, and seek to pay it off as quickly as possible”.
The welfare agency did this even though a report by the Commonwealth Ombudsman in April 2017 “demonstrated that most debts calculated this way were greatly inflated, and that some were false (zero debts)”, he says.
Have you fallen foul of Centrelink’s robo-debt collection scheme? Have you had success with an appeal?