Our client Deanna Amato
The Australian Government acted unlawfully when it raised a robo-debt against Victoria Legal Aid client Deanna Amato, added a penalty fee and took her tax return.
Rowan McRae, Executive Director of Civil Justice Access and Equity said ‘Today, the Australian Government has conceded that the unfair and inaccurate income-averaging process used to calculate Deanna’s robo-debt was also unlawful. If a debt isn’t calculated properly, Centrelink cannot go on and pursue a person to pay the money.’
‘Deanna’s case has helped to clarify the unlawfulness of the robo-debt system for hundreds of thousands of Australians in the same situation, who received or paid off a robo-debt based only on averaging,’ said Rowan.
‘Today’s result shows the Australian Government has accepted what advocates have been saying for years – using only income averaging to raise debts is both inaccurate and inconsistent with the Social Security Act,’ said Rowan.
The Federal Court has made orders, agreed to by both parties, including that the decision to raise a debt against Deanna was wrong and should not have happened. The Federal Government will pay Victoria Legal Aid’s legal costs.
Deanna said she was delighted at the news, ‘It feels amazing. You can feel so small and helpless next to the government, but I am so glad that the unfair and ultimately unlawful aspects of this system have been brought to light,’ she said.
The Federal Government had previously refunded Deanna $1709 that it had taken from her tax return. Today’s orders include that the Australian Government has agreed to pay her $92 in interest on money wrongfully taken.
‘I had my money refunded to me, but I hope that others who have paid dodgy debts will also have a way to get their money back’, said Deanna.
It comes as the Department of Human Services made major changes to the robo-debt system last week that went to the heart of our test case.
Deanna said ‘My robo-debt should never have occurred in the first place. I feel pleased to have gotten this outcome but it’s bittersweet to know so many people have paid money under this system. I think it’s important that people remember that they have legal rights to question decisions that get made about them’, she said.
Explaining the outcome, Rowan said ‘After we filed our legal submissions, last week the Australian Government announced that Centrelink could no longer only rely on averaged Australian Tax Office data to raise debts and that further evidence would need to be gathered to calculate possible overpayments.’
‘While these announcements are significant, the change comes too late for many people who have experienced distress and hardship, or who have already paid robo-debts through tax garnishee action and debt collectors,’ she said.
Victoria Legal Aid brought the case on behalf of Deanna in June, after she learned in January that her full tax return of $1709.87 had been taken. That was the first she heard of her robo-debt. Centrelink sent eight letters to an address Deanna no longer lived at and never spoke to her before they raised a debt of $2,754 against her. As she was no longer receiving social security she had no obligation to update her contact details.
For more information about how Deanna’s robo-debt was calculated and what the decision means, see our explainer.
‘The robo-debt system has been undermining trust in the social security system, which is a lifeline for many people. Our case has helped pave the way for a smarter, fairer social security system that people can trust’, said Rowan.
Deanna said ‘I feel a weight lifted off my shoulders. I’ve proven my innocence, but also proven that there are reasons why you need all the facts before you can demand debt payments from people. Especially when those people were coming to you for help in the first place’.
Quotes from Deanna Amato
'It feels amazing. You can feel so small and helpless next to the government, but I am so glad that the unfair and ultimately unlawful aspects of this system have been brought to light. It’s so rewarding to be able to make a change like this.
'Finding out there were so many others suffering because of this terrible system became a big reason for undertaking this case. I hope everyone gets the opportunity for justice.
'My robo-debt should never have occurred in the first place. I feel pleased to have won my case but it’s bittersweet to know so many people have paid money under this system. I think it’s important that people remember that they have legal rights to question decisions that get made about them.
'Getting rid of the averaging element of the system is a giant leap forward – my debt was raised because of this averaging, and it’s now so obvious how incorrect it can be. I had my money refunded to me but I hope that others who have chosen, or been forced to pay back dodgy debts will also have a way to get their money back.
'I feel a weight lifted off my shoulders. I’ve proven my innocence, but also proven that there are reasons why you need all the facts before you can demand debt payments from people. Especially when those people were coming to you for help in the first place.
'I feel so proud and emotional about everyone’s efforts to make this happen. I can’t believe that in the space of one year, I’ve gone from fear and anxiety over a government debt, to helping change the system – it’s phenomenal. I’m still in shock and want to thank my legal team at Victoria Legal Aid.
'It was incredibly hard to decide to take on the federal government with this case, but my hope was always that the system would change, and others wouldn’t have to go through this process. I couldn’t be happier that we achieved this.'
Our client Deanna is not available for interview. Rowan McRae is available for interview. Contact Alma Mistry Senior Communications Advisor 0418381327 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviewed 14 April 2022