Challenging Centrelink’s robo-debt system

Challenging Centrelink’s robo-debt system

Rewind robo-debt

'If you’ve made a mistake, then fair enough that you have to pay back money. But, with robo-debt, no one can explain whether you’ve made a mistake. No one tells you anything. They just say you’ve got a debt and you have to pay … But now I know that the Government tries to make people pay debts that they don’t understand and might not owe. It harasses and intimidates people. It’s just so upsetting' 

–  legal aid client Janine.

Janine is one of thousands of people around Australia who’ve been trapped in Centrelink’s flawed robo-debt system.

In a new submission to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee with National Legal Aid we have called for robo-debt to be stopped and replaced with a fairer, accurate system people can trust.

Legal aid commissions (LAC’s) are the main providers of legal assistance services in Australia. In the 2017–18 financial year, LAC’s provided over 2.3 million services to people across the country.

Over half a million debts have been raised against Australians through robo-debt. The system is causing severe hardship for people, causing people to repay money they do not owe, and undermining trust in the social security system.

The submission shares stories from 11 people who were assisted by LAC’s. They illustrate the systemic flaws with the current program: 

  • the stress and hardship robo-debt causes, including undermining people’s mental health. 
  • the inaccuracy of robo-debt, including the frequency with which debts decrease upon recalculation and the very real risk that people are paying money to Centrelink that they do not owe. 
  • the unfairness of robo-debt’s ‘reverse onus’ where the responsibility lies with people to prove they do not owe the amounts claimed. 
  • the lack of clear information provided by Centrelink in correspondence about how the debt was calculated for people trying to understand and resolve their alleged overpayments.

10 recommendations for a better system

Informed by our direct work with clients, we call for a rethink of robo-debt and for 10 changes to help deliver a fair and accurate system that people can trust:

  1. Stop robo-debt and co-design a fairer system.
  2. End averaging.
  3. Make sure Centrelink establishes that the amount is correct before claiming a debt.
  4. Improve client focussed communication and service provision.
  5. Embrace client-centred design and use of technology.
  6. Ensure an accessible, transparent right of review.
  7. Promote access to advice and assistance.
  8. Stronger safeguards before seizing tax returns.
  9. Ensure proper, limited use of penalty fees.
  10. Follow fair, appropriate debt collection practices.

The senate committee has until March 2020 to report.

Robo-debt and our clients 

The National Legal Aid submission contains 11 stories that show the stress and hardship caused by the unfairness and inaccuracy of robo-debt. 

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