Tribunal upholds one-third of robo-debt appeals

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Have you received a debt recovery notice from Centrelink in recent months? Did you doubt its accuracy? You may wish to consider an appeal.

One-third of appeals relating to Centrelink’s contentious robo-debts scheme have resulted in the debts being set aside by a federal tribunal.

More than 400 robo-debt cases have been decided by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) since July 2016, a Senate estimates committee has been told, with just under two-thirds of debts upheld, a small number varied, and one third set aside.

From 1 July 2016 to 31 March 2018, of 450 customers who did first appeals with the AAT, 416 cases have been decided, with:

  • 64 per cent (265) unchanged
  • 2.4 per cent (10) varied
  • 34 per cent (141) set aside.

Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert labelled Centrelink’s robo-debt program as highly controversial and said concerns remained that it regularly issued incorrect or false debts.

“This has caused immense stress to Australians who have accessed the social safety net and had to go back and prove a debt was not owed,” she said. “It often (involved) having to find paperwork from years ago to prove innocence.

“For a third of debts to be set aside for those who had the courage to actually appeal should raise concerns about other debts. One in three is a significant amount to overturn.

“I, for one, have not forgotten that there are many Australians still receiving incorrect or false debts to their detriment, and urge those who receive debt notices to interrogate and challenge the debt.”

Ms Siewert called on the Government to abandon the automated debt recovery program and “reinstate human oversight when it comes to checking debts potentially owed to Centrelink”.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services said people had ample opportunity to explain their circumstances.

“The reviews set aside by the AAT make up less than 0.1 per cent of reviews that have been completed with a debt,” the spokeswoman said.

“The parties to such proceedings are able to provide the AAT with fresh evidence. That fresh evidence may lead to the original decision being set aside or varied.”

A former member of the AAT said the program involved enforcement of “illegal” debts that were sometimes inflated or non-existent.

Professor Terry Carney also accused Centrelink of failing to defend the legality of debts in the AAT and suggested the tribunal should set aside debts until the agency had proved the amounts were correct.

Professor Carney explains 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?

RELATED LINKS

Age Pension: Centrelink to expand robo-debt program

Pensioners could be the next group to be hit with robo-debt letters.

Senate inquiry into Centrelink debt recovery system

Community sector representatives have called Centrelink's debt recovery system inhumane.

Commonwealth Ombudsman slams Centrelink robo-debt scheme

Customers treated unfairly, system lacks transparency, says Ombudsman.

Written by Janelle Ward



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