Economic Justice Australia and two of its member organisations, Welfare Rights Centre NSW and Welfare Rights and Advocacy Service WA, appeared before the Robodebt Royal Commission today.
Their evidence highlights the impact of Robodebt on the vulnerable clients of Economic Justice Australia’s member centres and obstructions to internal review of Robodebts by Centrelink’s Authorised Review Officers, as well as barriers to external appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
“The ultimate unfairness of the Robodebt scheme is the impact on people who faithfully reported their income, but were treated like they had done something wrong and told they couldn’t do anything about it unless they provided payslips – sometimes going back years. This reversal of the onus of proof put a huge burden on people, many of whom were already struggling”, said Genevieve Bolton, Chair of Economic Justice Australia.
“Many people did not pursue their appeal rights, either because they were told they couldn’t appeal without providing the reams of payslips, which were often impossible to upload to the online system, or because they were fearful of the potential repercussions of appealing. Externally contracted debt collectors made threats of ‘legal action’, potential prosecution and being barred from leaving Australia if repayment arrangements weren’t made”, said Bolton.
The case studies provided by the two community legal centres specialising in social security law include Sara, who was a survivor of family and domestic violence, carer for her mother, and couldn’t work at the time given her physical injuries.
“Our clients were being told to use their credit cards or borrow money to repay their Robodebts. Sara was so panicked after being told by Centrelink that she had to repay the debt on time that she felt compelled to borrow money from a payday lender at a high rate of interest. She was as yet unaware she could get legal help from our centre”, said Catherine Eagle, Principal Solicitor of the Welfare Rights and Advocacy Service WA.
In another case study, Dani received her Robodebt notice when she was homeless after a car accident left her in pain with an acquired brain injury. Her Authorised Review Officer decision affirmed the flawed Robodebt calculation method given Dani’s inability to provide payslips. The Authorised Review Officer’s letter stated that: ‘If every possible means of obtaining the actual income information has been attempted, it is acceptable to use any evidence available including an annual figure’.
“Most clients with Robodebts were denied the right to review, as our lawyers and their clients were told by Centrelink that unless they provided pay slips for the alleged debt period, the request for review would not proceed”, said Bolton.
“Our Robodebt clients were not given any explanation of how their debt was calculated and if they asked, they were told it was calculated ‘automatically’ or ‘by the computer’. The lack of explanation meant that our centres had to make a Freedom of Information request if they wanted to advise or represent a client with a Robodebt”, said Bolton.
Welfare Rights Centre NSW saw its first client with an identified Robodebt on 8 December 2016. On 5 March 2017, a Welfare Rights Centre solicitor was being interviewed by the ABC and said that: “With this type of debt raising, it’s not correct because they are not contacting the employer and asking for the fortnightly amounts … what Centrelink appears to have is a suspicion. And they’re asking a person to clarify things for them when they’ve very well got the power to clarify for themselves.”
“The Welfare Rights Centre was severely under-resourced to respond to the huge number of inquiries generated by the introduction of the Robodebt Scheme. As a consequence, many individuals were not able to access advice about their Robodebt and we were not in a position to follow up clients whom we had assisted to obtain records of their debt from Centrelink. Lack of access to advice and representation meant that Centrelink was not held to account for its decision-making in many cases”, said Katherine Boyle, Executive Director of the Welfare Rights Centre.
Legal Aid Victoria eventually brought a case to the Federal Court which found that the Robodebt scheme had no legal basis and precipitated the end of the scheme and refunding of debts already repaid. However, Legal Aid does not provide legal representation for Centrelink matters at the internal review stage, meaning this overwhelming demand fell to underfunded Community Legal Centres.
“Where our members were able to obtain and scrutinise relevant records under a Freedom of Information request, they reported significant successes in internal reviews. However, relatively few Robodebt matters were appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal given the lack of funding of community legal centres and the challenges faced by people trying to represent themselves without any information about how the debt was calculated”, said Bolton.
Economic Justice Australia warns that notices regarding social security and family assistance debts continue to include insufficient information about the decision that has been made. Economic Justice Australia is actively engaged in ongoing discussions with Services Australia about how, to comply with the law, debt notices need to at least specify ‘the reason the debt was incurred, including a brief explanation of the circumstances that led to the debt being incurred’.
“Especially in the social security context, the Government should bear the onus of proving that a person has been overpaid. The basis on which any debt has been calculated must be clear, intelligible, and transparent to the person affected and any reviewer. Centrelink officers should have the necessary skills and training to be able to assist people who challenge or seek an explanation for debts that have been raised against them. Efficient, fair, accessible, independent review of income compliance decisions must be available”, said Bolton.
Katherine Boyle (Deputy Chair, Economic Justice Australia and Executive Director, Welfare Rights Centre NSW). M: 0430 306 823. E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Leanne Ho (Chief Executive Officer, Economic Justice Australia). M: 0448007201. E: email@example.com