Dealing with an unlawful robo-debt

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Dealing with an unlawful robo-debt

 Learn about your options if you have an unlawful robo-debt.

On this page:

In our view robo-debts calculated using only averaging of ATO data are unlawful and Centrelink should stop any recovery action, set them aside, and refund any money that was paid towards the debt. We are seeking clarification on Centrelink’s process for dealing with robo-debts which were unlawfully raised. Before the robo-debt system, Centrelink routinely used their own legal powers to contact employers or banks to clarify what people had earned. For now, we suggest you take the following steps.  

Contact Centrelink by phone or letter or both, to request that: 

  • All recovery action cease 
  • The debt be set aside 
  • All money paid towards the debt be refunded.

If Centrelink refuses to take these steps or advises you that you need to provide more information, we suggest you seek a formal review. You can also make a complaint. This page contains draft template letters to request a review or make a complaint. 

Calling Centrelink to question a debt 

If you have a debt that was calculated using the averaging of ATO income information you can follow our script below to request to have your debt reviewed by an Authorised Review Officer and any repayments refunded.   

We encourage you to request a reference number for any call that you make to Centrelink and to keep your own records of your conversation.  

Call Centrelink debt recovery on 1800 076 072

What to say on the phone

Centrelink have raised a debt against me using averaged ATO income information.  

The Federal Court has made orders that confirms that it is unlawful to raise a debt relying on averaged ATO income information. 

Please confirm that you are setting my debt aside and refunding any repayments I have made or that have been taken from my tax refund.  

If the Centrelink officer does not agree to set aside debt or refund repayments

Please refer my debt/s to an Authorised Review Officer (ARO) for review and put the debt/s on hold. 

Please give me a reference number for the ARO review referral and send me a letter confirming that the matter has been referred to an ARO.  

Once you have received a reference number you can end the call.

If the Centrelink officer states that you must provide documents like payslips or bank statements in order to have your debt reviewed

I am under no obligation to provide these documents in order to get a review. Centrelink cannot refuse this request on the basis that I have not provided any material.  

If the Centrelink officer states that you must first go through a different review/appeal/recalculation/reassessment process first

I have a right to review by an Authorised Review Officer and I confirm that I do not want review by a subject matter expert, reassessment or any other informal process.  

If the Centrelink officer continues to refuse to refer your debt to review by an ARO

I will be making a complaint internally/and to the Commonwealth Ombudsman.  

If the Centrelink officer refuses to refer your debt/s to review by an ARO you can end the call and make the request in writing using our ARO review template

Tips for calling 

  • have a customer reference number ready 
  • ask for a reference number for your call 
  • make notes of your conversation 
  • try to call outside of peak times to avoid long waiting periods 
  • don’t use rude or offensive language towards Centrelink staff.

Getting an authorised review officer (ARO) review 

You have the right to a review of almost any decision that Centrelink makes about you.  To do this you need to request a review by an authorised review officer (ARO). An ARO is a senior Centrelink officer who has not previously dealt with your matter. The ARO will have a fresh look at the decision and call you to discuss. 

The ARO is required to make the ‘correct’ decision based on all the information available including new information from you. They can increase, decrease or cancel a debt on review. The ARO should send you a letter explaining their decision. 

ARO review template

Things to know about the review process 

There is no time limit on asking for a review of Centrelink's decision that you have a debt, even if a debt has been paid back. If a debt is cancelled or reduced because of the review then Centrelink will refund money to you if you have paid more than you should have. If a debt is cancelled on review, any penalty fee should also be waived.  

You can ask for your debt, including any repayments, to be put on hold while it is reviewed. This is not automatic and must be requested. Debt recovery will restart at the end of any hold period without notice, even if Centrelink has not yet finished the review. You can call and ask for the hold period to be extended if you are still waiting for a review.  

If Centrelink won’t put your debt on hold, you can request that an ARO review that decision as well. 

Make sure you ask for a receipt number from Centrelink for every request you make and keep copies of any documents you lodge with Centrelink. 

Making a complaint 

You can make a complaint if Centrelink:

  • refuses to refer your debt to review by an ARO over the phone
  • or has not confirmed your request for review by ARO or conducted a review within 14 days 

Download our Robo-debt complaint letter template (docx, 39.98 KB).

Further appeal rights

You can appeal the ARO’s decision to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). 

The AAT is free and informal but it must apply the same laws as Centrelink does. Centrelink will provide information from your file and the AAT will hold a hearing where you have an opportunity to explain why you think the decision is wrong. 

There are two divisions of the AAT that review Centrelink decisions. If you disagree with the outcome of the first Division (Social Security & Child Support), you can apply for a second review by the General Division of the AAT. 

If you have a decision from an ARO and are thinking about appealing to the AAT, you may want to contact Legal Help on 1300 792 387. 

Options for compensation

The private law firm Gordon Legal is running a class action seeking to recover compensation for some people affected by robo-debt.  

If you have suffered loss as a result of Centrelink’s conduct you can apply for compensation under Compensation for Detriment caused by Defective Administration Scheme. For details see the Department of Finance website. 

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