Robo-debts

Robo-debts

This page can help you understand Centrelink's automated 'robo-debt' system and explains what options you have if you have been contacted by Centrelink or have a debt.  

Important: Our client Deanna Amato had a recent win in her Federal Court challenge of the robo-debt system. In that case, the Australian Government conceded that a key plank of the system (the use of income-averaging to raise debts) was unlawful and now many old robo-debts will be reviewed.  

We have updated our information for people who may have paid back unlawful debts and will update this page when we have more information from Centrelink.  

How does the 'robo-debt' automated system work​?

Centrelink has been using an automated system to try to detect overpayments to past and present recipients of social security payments. The system uses income information held by government agencies, usually the Australian Tax Office (ATO), and compares it to the income you have reported. If the system thinks there is a difference, Centrelink sends you a letter asking you to provide further information about your income and advising you of a potential debt. They will ask you to provide the information by logging in to your Centrelink account through the Department of Human Services website or myGov website.  

If you don’t respond, Centrelink uses information about your yearly income from the Australian Tax Office and averages it over multiple fortnights to determine a debt.  Centrelink requires you to repay this debt if you did not provide the information it had asked for. If you provide that information Centrelink will recalculate your debt using that information.  

The robo-debt system is a change from how Centrelink used to determine debts. Previously, if you could not provide the information Centrelink requested, Centrelink would write directly to your employer or bank to obtain this information.  

How does the recent Amato case change robo-debt?

In a recent court case the Australian Government conceded that a process that only uses income averaging of ATO data is not a lawful way to accurately calculate a debt.  This means that debts raised by this type of income averaging are likely to be unlawful. Read about Deanna’s case.

Centrelink has confirmed that it will no longer raise debts that rely only on averaging of ATO data. For people who have current or past Centrelink debts we have provided information about how to tell if you may have an unlawful robo-debt and how to deal with an unlawful robo-debt. If Centrelink has asked you to provide payslips or bank statements go to Centrelink has asked me to confirm or update my employment information – do I need to respond

Do I have an unlawful robo-debt? 

Not all Centrelink debts are unlawful robo-debts. A debt is likely to be an unlawful robo-debt if it arose after you were: 

  • told there had been a data match with the Australian Tax Office in relation to your income 
  • and asked to provide payslips or bank statements 
  • and did not provide that information (or all of the information requested). 

How to make a freedom of information request

You have the right to view or get copies of your personal information that Centrelink keeps on file, including information about your debt. A request for access to documents should be made in writing and can be sent via email to FOI.Legal.Team@Humanservices.gov.au It does cost money to request this.  

Dealing with an unlawful robo-debt

If your debt is an unlawful robo-debt go to dealing with an unlawful robo-debt to learn about your options. There are resources to help you contact Centrelink to question the debt, request a formal review and make a complaint. 

If your debt is not an unlawful robo-debt and you disagree with it go to Centrelink debts

Centrelink has asked me to confirm or updat​e my employment information – do I need to respond?

If you have supporting documents that confirms your income for the relevant period, such as payslips or bank statements, that will enable Centrelink to determine if there is an overpayment, and the correct amount of any overpayment.  

You can ask Centrelink for more time to provide the requested information. For help with providing information through myGov, see the National Social Security Rights Network fact sheet, Employment income confirmation

If you are unable to obtain the information requested, then you can ask Centrelink for assistance. Without further information, Centrelink should not raise a debt by substituting averaged income data for your fortnightly reporting amounts, as this is unlawful. Centrelink announced in November 2019 that it will no longer raise debts solely relying on averaging of ATO data. Centrelink has legal powers to get this information directly from your employer or bank. 

 

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