Is red tape preventing women from accessing the Escaping Violence Payment?

New data has revealed that almost half of people trying to access a social security payment designed to assist those escaping family violence are being rejected. This has led to concerns about what can be done to address this issue. 

The escaping violence payment (EVP) is a social security payment introduced in 2021 to offer financial assistance to help families set up a home free of violence. Under the scheme, survivors of family violence can access up to $1,500 in cash and up to $3,500 in goods and services, such as removalists, to help them leave a violent home.

Last month, though, the Guardian reported that data to Senate Estimates revealed that around half of people trying to access EVP are having their claims rejected. Between July and September 2023, 57,041 applications were made for the EVP, but only 29,437 were deemed eligible.

This data has raised concerns that applying for EVP is too difficult and the payment is not reaching the women who need it most.

“The most common reasons are because the eligibility criteria were not met, the service provider was unable to recontact the applicant or the applicant otherwise determined not to proceed with the application,” a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services said in a statement.

While “the applicant otherwise determined not to proceed with the application” sounds like a simple mind change, at SSRV, we know that there are many reasons why women fail to proceed with applications, and it’s rarely a change of mind.

Failure to proceed with an application is often a direct result of a difficult and complicated application process that many women, especially those dealing with the multiple and terrible issues arising from family violence, do not have the capacity to deal with.

According to the Guardian, a recent review into the process of applying for the EVP found there were difficulties in establishing eligibility for the payment because people did not have the right supporting documentation, such as a police or doctor’s report.

Some clients struggled to demonstrate financial hardship because they did not have a bank account in their name.

There are also concerns that the eligibility criteria for the EVP may be too limiting. It cannot be accessed by people experiencing other forms of family violence, such as elder abuse, visa holders and people who have left a violent relationship more than 12 weeks ago.

SSRV believe that, while there has been significant improvement in how social security law treats people escaping family violence, more needs to be done to ensure that the social security system is able to be accessed by people at the moment they need it the most.

Social Security Debt Help

Centrelink debts can be complex and are often confusing. Our clients frequently tell us they had no idea they were being overpaid or that a debt was being accrued. Often the first they hear about a debt is when they get a letter out of the blue, or worse, when their tax refund is taken and put towards a debt they didn’t even know they had.

Social Security Debt Help is SSRV’s new resource that aims to help people understand Centrelink debts, how they come about, and what they can do about them.

Understanding a debt is the first step to addressing it, and different options will be available depending on how the debt came about. For example, debts may be caused by income being reported incorrectly, or a coupled person being paid the single rate, or someone simply being ineligible for the payment they were receiving because they didn’t meet the requirements. Social Security Debt Help covers these and more.

Unfortunately, many Centrelink debts are valid. People do get overpaid for a variety of reasons, and Centrelink can ask them to pay that money back. Not all debts need to be paid back though, and all Centrelink debts can be reviewed. You can ask Centrelink to waive recovery of a debt in certain circumstances. Repayment plans may also be organised. Social Security Debt Help provides information on seeking a waiver, as well as other options that may make having a Centrelink debt less stressful and less impactful on your life. Check out the website here.

Victorian bushfires 2024: be prepared

SSRV project worker Mark Morand talks about the risk of bushfires in 2024, the links between social security and bushfires, and what you should be doing right now to prepare.

Free online Community Legal Education Sessions

SSRV’s Community Legal Education sessions (CLEs) are popular with workers supporting clients experiencing social security issues. Professional development in this area is important because social security is a complex area of law and one that is ever-changing. Centrelink problems often intersect with other issues that people are facing such as family law, family violence, debt, homelessness, health, disability and disasters.

SSRV’s CLEs are free, online, and explain in plain English social security law and how it might impact your clients. We tell you what to look out for, how to address issues when they arise, and about how Social Security Rights Victoria (SSRV) can assist.

Our CLEs cover a range of common social security issues, including eligibility criteria, what to if you disagree with a Centrelink Decision, and how to challenge a Centrelink Debt. In the coming months, SSRV will be hosting webinars on Centrelink debts, family violence, and when you are a member of a couple for Centrelink purposes.

Subscribe to SSRV News and you’ll be first to receive invitations when registrations open. Make sure you also let colleagues know how to sign up to our mailing list if they would like to receive more information about upcoming sessions.

Family Violence, Family Tax Benefit, and more to be done

Financial security is critical for people planning to escape family violence or rebuilding a life free from violence. So, how is it that a system designed to support us in times of need can be used by perpetrators to commit further acts of family violence?

Family Tax Benefit (FTB) is an example where this can occur. FTB is a two-part payment that helps with the cost of raising children. When parents are partnered, FTB is only payable to one person in the relationship. However, in assessing eligibility and the rate of payment, Centrelink requires income information of both the recipient and their partner.

To receive FTB in fortnightly instalments, the recipient must provide an income estimate for the financial year ahead. At the end of the financial year Centrelink check their income estimate against their actual income through data matching with the Australian Tax Office. If the estimate and actual income amounts differ, Centrelink recalculate their entitlement accordingly. This can result in an overpayment or top up payment. 

Recipients whose income has changed or fluctuated throughout the year are more likely to have an overpayment or top up payment. However, in family violence circumstances there are several complexities created by this process

No access to income information

Family violence often includes financial abuse, leaving a victim/survivor without access to accurate income information of the perpetrator. This includes circumstances where the perpetrator deliberately provides the victim/survivor with inaccurate information to report to Centrelink or where asking the perpetrator for income information has triggered violence and caused the victim/survivor to fear for their safety. 

This leaves the victim/survivor with the difficult task of trying to accurately estimate their partner’s income and increases the risk of Centrelink raising a debt against them if they make a mistake.

Overpayment for failure to lodge tax return

When a recipient and/or their partner fail to lodge their tax return (or advise Centrelink they aren’t required to lodge a tax return) within the time limit, then the full amount of FTB received for the relevant financial year is raised as an overpayment. These are called ‘non-lodger debts’.

When it comes to overpayments, Centrelink only seek repayment from the recipient, even if their partner is the one who hasn’t lodged a tax return. As a result, the recipient can be left with a debt through no fault of their own. In circumstances of family violence, this makes the victim/survivor responsible for the perpetrator’s actions and can limit their ability to develop financial freedom and independence.

Additionally, if Centrelink raises a non-lodger debt, the recipient can no longer receive FTB in fortnightly instalments. This generally remains in place until the outstanding tax return is lodged. However, in circumstances of family violence, a victim/survivor can ask Centrelink to delay this for up to six months. 

It is important to note, if someone is unable to receive FTB by fortnightly instalments due to non-lodgement of tax returns, they can still receive FTB as a lump sum at the end of financial year provided tax returns are lodged within relevant time limits.

If a couple separates, the recipient can recommence receiving FTB fortnightly and Centrelink will ‘write-off’ the non-lodger debt. This means they pause recovery of the debt until the ex-partner lodges the relevant tax return. If Centrelink doesn’t automatically write off a non-lodger debt upon separation, they can be asked to do this. 

Having Centrelink write off a non-lodger debt is helpful for victim/survivors as it places any debt recovery on hold until a determination is made as to whether there is in fact a debt. Without a write-off, the victim survivor again unfairly bears the consequences of the perpetrator’s actions.

Recovery of Overpayments

Despite using the family income to assess eligibility and rate of payment, and despite the payment being designed to assist with the cost of raising children, Centrelink only seeks to recover an overpayment from the recipient. This occurs irrespective of the circumstances resulting in the debt. 

Consequently, the process of raising and recovering FTB overpayments often makes the victim/survivor further responsible for the perpetrator’s abusive behaviour, and limits their ability to develop financial freedom and independence. Meanwhile, there is no accountability for the perpetrator.

Family violence is considered by Centrelink to be a relevant factor in considering debt waiver due to special circumstances. One of the challenges in this, however, is that often the presence of family violence is not deemed as ‘unusual’, as is required by the special circumstances debt waiver provisions. As a result, there will usually need to be additional circumstances of vulnerability and hardship to obtain waiver of debt.

Furthermore, debt waiver due to special circumstances is only available where neither the recipient nor a third party (including a perpetrator of family violence) have knowingly provided false information to Centrelink. This means where a perpetrator has purposely provided false information to Centrelink, a waiver cannot be obtained by the victim/survivor. It also makes it difficult to obtain a waiver in circumstances where a victim/survivor has guessed the perpetrator’s income, knowing it was a guess, but being unable to obtain the correct information due to perpetrator withholding their income information or due to victim/survivor prioritising their safety and not asking the perpetrator for the information.

All this means that current social security responses to family violence do not sufficiently emphasise recovery and restoration and may even impede it. 

Historically, social security law has been focussed on ensuring the immediate safety and security of victims of family violence. However, safety is only the start—the ultimate objective of the family violence response must be that victims, including children, can recover and thrive, and do so at the pace they require.

Financial security is a key part of recovery. Women who have lived with a violent partner are more likely than other women to experience financial difficulty, and many women experience poverty as a result of family violence. The associated abuse can be financial in nature (defined by law as economic abuse) or can be characterised by other forms of family violence that affect a victim’s financial wellbeing. 

A range of factors can exacerbate victims’ experience of financial insecurity—among them difficulty obtaining child support payments, tenancy problems, a lack of control over household finances, and credit, utility and car-related debt incurred by the perpetrator. 

SSRV believe that, while there has been significant improvement in how social security law treats people escaping family violence, more needs to be done to prevent family violence being further perpetrated through the social security system.

Introducing Social Security Debt Help

We’ve created a new resource for people with Centrelink debts and those supporting them. Social Security Debt Help has been created based on our experiences and learnings from our DSP Help website, and it’s now live and available to anyone in Australia.

Social Security Debt Help is a website that helps people better understand Centrelink debts, how they come about, and what they can do if they or someone they’re supporting has one. Centrelink debts are legal issues and it’s important to get legal advice about how to manage them. This self-help tool will assist people with debts to  understand their options before they get advice, so they know what to ask and what might apply to them.

We’ll be organising a launch event in the new year, so keep an eye out for details. We’ll also be organising some training/education about Centrelink debts which could be useful for you or your clients.

You’re welcome to start using the website right away. If you’d like to chat to us about the website or your clients, please call our Worker Help Line on 03 9481 0655.

Check out Social Security Debt Help here.

Social Security Debt Help is supported by funding from the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner under the Victorian Legal Services Board Grants Program. 

Bushfires and social security: be proactive 

During 2019, Victoria declared six bushfire disasters, culminating in the devastating Black Summer fires, which affected almost a quarter of Victoria’s Local Government Areas.  Victorian emergency agencies and others are warning of a heightened risk of bushfires in Victoria in the summer of 2023/2024. 

At SSRV, we have identified a relationship between bushfires and social security legal issues.  Our previous articles talked about the reasons why people in regional areas are more likely to experience bushfire-related social security legal issues; provided some examples of these sorts of issues from our work; and provided some tips for community lawyers and other helping professionals regarding disaster-related social security legal issues. 

In this article we’ve listed some steps people can take to reduce their risk of experiencing bushfire-related Centrelink problems.

1: Assess bushfire risk

Victoria’s Country Fire Authority has published a guide to a person’s level of bushfire risk. People living in regional areas can make a personal assessment of the likelihood that their home or community will be impacted by bushfire. 

2: Current social security arrangements 

We recommend including in any bushfire preparedness kit, Customer Reference numbers (CRN), payslips (if not in electronic copies) and identification documents. Identification documents will often be needed to access new payments available after a bushfire. Maintaining records of payslips is also important to avoid inaccurate income reporting to Centrelink and subsequent overpayments and debts.

3: Accessing Centrelink and MyGov

We recommend Centrelink recipients consider how they might access Centrelink and MyGov following a disaster. Many people rely upon saved phone passwords and 2-factor authentication to access important financial information. Phones may be lost in the urgency of a disaster. Keeping these details securely in a bushfire preparedness kit can make accessing Centrelink and finances following a disaster an easier process. Following a disaster Centrelink will often set up access hubs in local affected areas, but these hubs will need to be able to identify a person to assist them.

4:  After being impacted by bushfire

Taking these steps following a disaster can help prevent social security issues arising:

  • Informing Centrelink as soon as possible of:
  • any changes to postal addresses;
  • any changes to living arrangements, including leaving the principal home;
  • any changes to parenting arrangements;
  • any changes to employment and income.
  • If leaving the principal home due to a natural disaster, ensuring Centrelink is aware of this and has exempted the principal home from the assets test.
  • Consider whether mutual obligations have been paused by Centrelink for the affected region. If not, consider requesting an individual pause on mutual obligations to allow time to respond and recover. 
  • Consider eligibility for Disaster Recovery Payment, Disaster Recovery Allowance, Crisis Payment, or any other Centrelink disaster assistance.
  • Consider emergency payments released by the State Government by checking
  • If affected by Centrelink debts or compensation preclusion periods, consider seeking help with these when possible.

Usually, Centrelink is the best first contact point. Look out for local Centrelink access hubs following a disaster, and dedicated disaster-related Centrelink phone lines.

SSRV can discuss and advise upon options, rights and next steps if any issues or questions arise relating to disasters and social security.

Other organisations that provide expertise in aspects of bushfire and disaster preparation

Victorian Government
Country Fire Authority   
Department of Health 
Local Government (example) Many local governments publish bushfire preparation guidance.  Find your local council here:
Commonwealth Government Services Australia (Centrelink)
Insurance industry Insurance Council of Australia
Water Industry Greater Western Water 

Disasters and social security legal issues: tips for community workers and lawyers

At SSRV, we see how natural disasters can lead to and impact social security legal issues. Below are some client examples of how disasters impacted their social security issue and how SSRV was able to assist.

Finding Mutual Obligations hard after being affected by a disaster?

Jen* had been affected by the floods and Lena* had been affected by bushfires. They were both struggling to keep up with their Mutual Obligation (MO) requirements as they dealt with insurance and repair issues.  SSRV helped them understand their rights to pause their MO requirements and how they could request this. This helped to alleviate the stress they were experiencing in the aftermath of the disaster.

Disasters can contribute to Centrelink debts being incurred; they can also be a ‘special circumstance’ to seek waiver of a debt

Over recent years, Sandy’s* small rural diary farm had been severely affected by drought, flooding and bushfires and as a result was no longer making a profit. Grappling with the financial status of the farm, Sandy applied for Farm Household Allowance (FHA) from Centrelink. Shortly after his payments started, he visited ill family in the UK and was locked out of Australia due to COVID-19 border closures. A year later Centrelink told him he owed $24,000 for overpayment of FHA. SSRV represented Sandy at the Tribunal and obtained a waiver of his entire $24,000 debt.

Disagree with Centrelink’s valuation of your disaster affected property?

Grant*lived on a property in a flood affected area.  He was receiving JobSeeker Payment when Centrelink decided to undertake an assets review.  The Centrelink valuation of his property, which was a modest house surrounded by extensive land, resulted in his JobSeeker Payment being cancelled for exceeding the assets limit.  This left Grant with no income and unable to easily liquidate his assets due to the nature of the property.  We provided Grant with extensive advice about his legal position, his appeal rights and how to ask Centrelink for an Authorised Review Officer (ARO) Review.  We encouraged Grant to contact us again for further advice once he receives his ARO decision.

It’s clear that the aftermath of natural disasters can result in complex and traumatic circumstances for already vulnerable people.

Here is some guidance for community lawyers and community workers supporting vulnerable clients at risk of being affected by disasters. 

1: Identification documents are generally required to apply for new Centrelink payments. Where a person loses their identity documents due to a disaster, an Alternative Identity Form can be used to temporarily establish identity for the purpose of receiving payments. 

2: Centrelink recipients must update Centrelink within 14 days of any change in circumstances that might affect their payment. This includes relocation and changes in care of children. Updating Centrelink about changes in circumstances decreases the risk of overpayments and future debts. 

3: Centrelink will sometimes send important notices and correspondence via post, particularly where legislation requires. Centrelink recipients should update their postal address with Centrelink if necessary. Many post offices allow post to be sent to their care. 

4: Centrelink recipients who relocate from their principal home due to a disaster, can seek to have their home be exempted from the assets test under ‘temporary vacation of property’ provisions for up to 24 months. These exemptions are not automatic and usually need to be requested. There are also provisions which allow insurance payouts to be exempted from the assets test.

5: Suspension of Mutual Obligation requirements and debt repayments can be requested by contacting Centrelink and explaining the impact of the disaster on the client’s circumstances. 

6: Experiencing a disaster may be considered a ‘special circumstance’ for the purpose of a Compensation Preclusion Period reduction or waiver of a debt. We are available to speak with you about how this may apply to specific circumstances. 

7: Most Centrelink decisions can be appealed – first internally by a Centrelink Authorised Review Officer, and subsequently through two tiers of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. 

SSRV services 

Please call us to discuss how SSRV can help with your Centrelink issue, or your client’s Centrelink issue.

SSRV Worker Help Line Monday to Friday, 9am – 5pm 03 9481 0655 
SSRV Legal Assistance Line Monday to Thursday, 10am – 1pm, 2pm – 4pm  03 9481 0355 
Rural Callers  1800 094 164 

*Names have been changed.

SSRV supporting regional Victoria

SSRV offers assistance to Victorians experiencing Centrelink issues and community workers who assist them, and this was no more evident than in November, when we travelled to regional Victoria to hold a series of workshops and information sessions. 

The schedule of road trips kicked off on 9 November when SSRV Community Lawyers, Veronica and Aylin, headed to Central Rural Highlands Health in Daylesford, to deliver a training session on the Disability Support Pension.  

We were so pleased to see the passion and enthusiasm of the health workers, committed to helping people collect medical evidence to support applications and appeals. 

Afterwards, Veronica and Aylin headed across to Ballarat to pay a visit to our colleagues at Ballarat and Grampians Community Legal Service, and share information about our Disaster Preparedness and Response work. 

Then, on 22 November, Veronica hit the road again, this time with Mark, an SSRV project worker. Their destination was the Bendigo and District Aboriginal Co-operative (BDAC) and the function they were attending was Community Justice Day. 

Community Justice Day was organised by the Consumer Action Law Centre and BDAC, and was an opportunity for community members to engage with organisations that could offer support and advice. It was wonderful to meet some of the people we and others help, as well as connect with workers. 

Then it was off to the Bendigo offices of ARC Justice, where we provided an overview of SSRV’s services to lawyers and workers, including our disaster preparedness and response work. 

The geographic region covered by ARC Justice was had hit by flooding in late 2022 and supporting the community has been a major focus of ARC Justice and our disaster work over the past year.

 It was a great opportunity for both organisations to better understand how we can work together to achieve justice for clients. 

Community legal centres located in rural and regional areas are often at the frontline when bushfires, floods or other disasters occur. SSRV recognises and applauds their work in responding to these events and their aftermath.

We take the ‘Victoria’ in Social Security Rights Victoria very seriously and will continue to engage with regional legal centres and community organisations in 2024. 

Demand for financial counselling services now outstripping supply

Financial counselling services across Victoria are reporting unacceptable wait times as demand for assistance during this cost-of-living crisis, and SSRV is supporting a call by community organisations for increased resources to meet the demand.

In an open letter signed by 36 community organisations, Financial Counselling Victoria explains to the Victorian Government that the current situation puts vulnerable people at risk.

In the first six months of this year, phone calls to the National Debt Helpline in Victoria increased by 47 per cent compared to last year. This is due to high demand resulting from unmanageable living costs, including interest rate rises, unaffordable rentals, soaring energy prices, and increased grocery bills.

Centrelink issues are often accompanied by more complex financial situations and behaviours, and at SSRV, we see how access to financial counselling services can assist those with Centrelink issues to manage their current challenges and safeguard them against being repeated.

Financial counsellors are now seeing more and more middle-income earners who, for the first time, simply can’t afford to pay their bills

Financial counsellors are uniquely qualified professionals, specially trained to deal with complex financial matters such as rent stress, energy hardship, financial abuse arising from family violence, gambling-related harm, and arrangements for fines.

“These challenges disproportionately impact low-income families, single mother families, older women, and people from migrant backgrounds.” said SSRV financial counsellor Graeme Parsons. 

The Financial Counselling Victoria open letter urges the Victorian Government to:

  • Immediately uplift financial counsellor workforce numbers;
  • Resource the expansion of the workforce; and
  • Commit to further grow the financial counselling workforce over the next three years.

“When a family is in financial hardship or is experiencing an issue they feel unable to resolve, it needs to be addressed quickly,” says Graeme Parsons. “They simply can’t be put onto month-long waiting lists. It’s not just their financial welfare that’s put at risk, it’s their mental and physical health as well.

SSRV’s CEO, Gillian Wilks, says that, “SSRV supports the sector in urging the government to address this problem as a matter of priority.”

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