Watch SSRV’s short video explaining the Centrelink appeals process.
Social Security Rights Victoria supports the proposal to alter the Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the First Peoples of Australia and to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. This is an important step toward implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Social Security Rights Victoria is committed to collaborating closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations to identify and address systemic disadvantage and to work to ensure equitable access to, and outcomes from, the social security and legal systems. Therefore, Social Security Rights Victoria supports the Voice as an important practical mechanism for enhancing the principle of self-determination and for recognising and advancing the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, through more inclusive policy development and decision-making by the Commonwealth Government.
In taking this position Social Security Rights Victoria respectfully acknowledges that others may have different views regarding the proposed Constitutional amendment.
Last month, SSRV was invited to attend Economic Justice Australia’s (EJA) bi-annual meetings with the Department of Social Services and Services Australia.
During these meetings, Laura Jordan, SSRV Principal Lawyer, discussed SSRV’s work on disaster preparedness and response, and presented SSRV’s brief on social security disaster-related reform.
Drawing on the experiences of SSRV’s clients, the brief was drafted in collaboration with EJA and member centres. It highlights the relationship between disasters and legal disputes relating to social security law, policy and administration. The brief uses case study examples to suggest specific and achievable legislative and policy reform that would prepare the Australian social security system to better respond to the needs of people affected by disasters.
As an example, the brief suggests the inclusion in the Social Security Guide of disasters as a consideration when deciding upon social security matters such as special circumstances, and member of a couple decisions. Without direction in the Guide to consider the impact of disasters, SSRV has found decision makers often give little to no regard to disasters when making payment decisions.
In many cases, this results in the applicant/recipient having to unnecessarily pursue review of a decision whilst often simultaneously facing the stress and pressure of recovering from a disaster.
SSRV is grateful to EJA for the opportunity to attend the bi-annual meetings and looks forward to future collaboration to work towards socials security disaster-related reform.
In May 2023, we welcomed a new cohort of Monash Law students to SSRV’s Social Security Advocacy Clinic. The clinic is run in partnership with Monash University Law Clinics and provides experiential based learning for the students. Their involvement in the clinic forms part of their studies and allows them an opportunity to develop critical skills they will use as lawyers.
At the same time, the clinic provides SSRV the opportunity to extend services and provide important information and advice to more clients.
During their time with SSRV, the students are undertaking supervised legal advice appointments, legal research relating to SSRV’s case work, policy work and advocacy, and drafting letters of advice.
SSRV’s partnership with Monash Law Clinics continues to support the work of SSRV by increasing our capacity to offer legal advice and assistance to the most vulnerable members of our community. We are so pleased to be able to offer this opportunity to our next generation of lawyers and at the same time increase access to justice.
When Edward contacted SSRV, he had been struggling with anxiety, depression and PTSD for over 10 years. His application for the Disability Support Pension (DSP) had been rejected, and he was seeking help appealing that decision.
Five years ago, Edward was assessed and diagnosed by a psychiatrist, who then referred him back to his GP for ongoing monitoring and management. Edward previously attended sessions with a psychologist. He has regularly seen his GP and taken medication prescribed to him.
While the medication stops him from feeling suicidal, he has never been able to return to work. Six months before applying for DSP, Edward saw a psychiatrist for a review. The psychiatrist recommended he try further counselling. Centrelink then rejected his claim for DSP on the basis that the psychiatrist recommended further counselling, so Edward contacted SSRV for assistance.
Accessing DSP should be straight forward for vulnerable members of our community. However, we commonly hear stories like Edward’s. The medical eligibility criteria for DSP is technical, complex and can difficult to understand. Further, applying for DSP based on a mental health condition has specific requirements.
From April 1 2023, the Social Security (Tables for the Assessment of Work-related Impairment for Disability Support Pension) Determination 2023 has been updated.
One of the most significant changes relates to diagnosis of a mental health condition.
A diagnosis can now be made by a psychiatrist, or a GP and registered psychologist (prior to 1 April 2023 they had to be a clinical psychologist). It is hoped this change will assist vulnerable members of our community to meet the diagnosis requirement where previously they may not have been able to.
Reasonably treated and stabilised
Another key change within the impairment tables relates to a condition (not just a mental health condition) needing to be reasonably treated and stabilised, instead of fully treated and fully stabilised.
Even so, the test applied to assess whether a condition is reasonably treated and stabilised hasn’t changed significantly. A mental health condition does not have to be cured to be reasonably treated. Rather, it involves assessing what treatment has occurred, what treatment hasn’t occurred and why (such as cost, risk, accessibility, success rate) and whether over the next two years any further treatment is likely to result in significant functional improvement.
Meanwhile, the impairment tables define ‘stabilised’ as ‘…the person has undertaken reasonable treatment for the condition and any further reasonable treatment is unlikely to result in a significant functional improvement’. Reasonable treatment means treatment that is accessible, has a reasonable cost, is regularly used for the condition, has a high success rate, will likely result in significant functional improvement and is low risk.
The impairment tables also note, however, that a condition can still be stabilised even if someone has not undertaken reasonable treatment in circumstances where there is unlikely to be significant functional improvement even if they were to undergo reasonable treatment.
Additionally, if they have a medical or other compelling reason for not having undertaken reasonable treatment then they can be considered stabilised. Centrelink recognises that for mental health this may be particularly relevant when someone is so unwell that they can’t make beneficial decisions about treatment recommendations. We have seen the medical or other compelling reason provision applied for a client suffering schizophrenia where the symptoms of his illness caused him to fear treatment as he believed it was intended to harm him.
At what point Centrelink will accept someone is reasonably treated and stabilised for a mental health condition isn’t black and white and it can be difficult for clients who have not received ongoing treatment from a psychiatrist. However, while the impairment tables are prescriptive about diagnosis, they do not require that treatment and medical evidence be provided by a psychiatrist. A GP can provide treatment and medical evidence outlining the diagnosis, history and compliance with prescribed treatment or recommendations.
The likelihood of obtaining DSP without supporting evidence or ongoing treatment from a psychiatrist increases if they have regularly engaged with their GP over an extended period, attempted some kind of psychological therapy (unless deemed unsuitable by their treating practitioner) and complied consistently with any prescribed medication and changes recommended.
This is reflected in the case of ZSYJ and Secretary, Department of Social Services (Social services second review)  AATA 3969 (22 October 2018) where the Tribunal determined that Ms ZSYJ’s mental health conditions were treated and stabilised despite not having received ongoing treatment from a psychiatrist.
Key points in the Tribunal’s assessment included that she had attended regular appointments with her GP, and followed their treatment recommendations including complying with her prescribed medication and attempted counselling. The Tribunal accepted that further treatment wasn’t going to result in a significant functional improvement given how long she had struggled with her conditions.
In Edward’s case, SSRV assisted him to successfully appeal the decision to reject his DSP application. Similar to the case of ZSYJ, key to Edward’s success was the longstanding nature of his mental health condition, the lack of significant improvement over the years, his regular engagement with his GP and compliance with their treatment recommendations and his attempt at counselling.
As such, while the recent changes to the impairment tables have the potential to help vulnerable members of our community access DSP, whether a mental health condition meets the definition of diagnosed, reasonably treated and stabilised will still be assessed on a case-by-case basis and the quality of the medical evidence remains critical.
If you would like more information about the DSP eligibility criteria, visit our DSP Help website: dsphelp.org.au
On 21 June 2023, the Victorian Ombudsman delivered a workshop, Dealing with Complex Behaviour, to SSRV staff. This workshop allowed staff to reflect and build on strengths, challenges and strategies in responding to complex client situations. SSRV found this training to be very beneficial and is grateful to the Victorian Ombudsman for the opportunity to participate in this workshop.
The Victorian Ombudsman can consider discounted training rates with community legal centres on a case-by-case basis and offers training in Dealing with Complex Behaviour, Good Complaint Handling, Conflict of Interest Risks and Good Decision Making (from late August). You can find information about training opportunities here.
The Victorian Ombudsman deals with complaints about Victorian public organisations. These include local councils, Victorian government departments and organisations, Victorian universities and TAFEs, publicly funded community services, prisons and professional boards.
The Victorian Ombudsman commonly deals with complaints about Child Protection, State Trustees and human right breaches by Victorian public organisations. There are many overlaps with the issues SSRV clients face and we recognise it can be difficult to find the right place to turn to for help.
If you or a client thinks they have been treated wrongly by a Victorian public organisation, they can contact the Victorian Ombudsman to seek information, and in some cases provide assistance with fixing the issue.
Many SSRV clients reflect that they feel caught in a loop when navigating disputes with government organisations and are unsure of the steps to take to seek resolution. The Victorian Ombudsman can assist with navigating and escalating disputes with Victorian public organisations. The Victorian Ombudsman website can be found here. Their phone number is 1800 806 314.
There are a range of ombudsmen and authorities for different types of complaints. You can find more information here about where best to direct your complaint.
Complaints about Centrelink and Services Australia can be considered by the Commonwealth Ombudsman. You can find more information about the Commonwealth Ombudsman here.
SSRV provides legal services to vulnerable and disadvantaged Victorians, and those who support them, to secure and protect their right to social security entitlements. We know that Centrelink disputes and decisions on eligibility can cause mental distress, and financial hardship can exacerbate existing problems.
While we see the positive impact of our work, we also know this to be true: for vulnerable Victorians and the people who support them to receive our help, they need to know who we are, what we do, and how we can help.
That’s why, instead of waiting for people to contact us, SSRV regularly goes to them.
Recently, SSRV hit the road, attending events where they were able to speak directly to people receiving Centrelink payments and community organisations that support them.
In May, SSRV Community Lawyer, Veronica, attended a Bring Your Bills Day hosted at the Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-Operative. Along with representatives from Consumer Action Law Centre, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, and Births, Deaths and Marriages, Veronica provided services directly to people in their local community.
“It was a great reminder of the positive impact we can have,” says Veronica. “And the need for flexibility in service delivery, meeting our clients on their terms and with their needs in mind.”
A couple of weeks later, SSRV Project Worker Mark, and Communications Officer Margie, attended the Festival of Ideas, hosted by Financial Counselling Victoria. The festival connected organisations who support and work with people experiencing financial hardship.
The theme of this year’s festival was Priceless – the Unpaid Contribution, where attendees learned about initiatives designed to inform and support older people, unpaid carers and other members of our community.
SSRV had a stall at the festival and throughout the day Margie and Mark met representatives from community organisations, many telling them that about times they have contacted SSRV on behalf of clients, and how thankful they were that SSRV was there to help.
“The day really reaffirmed to me the importance of our work,” says Margie. “It was so pleasing to hear the stories of how we have helped, but even more gratifying to be able to supply organisations who were not familiar with our work with information about how they can contact us and how we can assist them.”
When DSP Help was launched in 2020, it was a real game-changer. Using human-centred design and technology, DSP Help is an online tool that has been an invaluable resource that applicants, support workers, health workers and others can use to better understand the Disability Support Pension (DSP) application and appeals processes and gather medical information to support applications.
“When I finished using DSP Help, I started crying,” one DSP Help user told us. “The same, drip-fed information that I gathered over my two-year process applying and reapplying for the DSP, I got in just 10 minutes.”
Given the positive impact DSP Help has made, we’re now looking at how we can leverage the learnings and technology to better assist others.
As part of a new project, we’ll be using everything we learned from DSP Help to address another major issue about which people seek advice and assistance from SSRV, Centrelink debts and overpayments.
We’re currently in the planning and design stages of the project, and as we progress, we’ll have more information to share.
We’ll also be reaching out to people who have used our service to be part of the consultation process. If you already know you’d like to be involved – or just want to chat about the project generally – please reach out.
We’d love to hear your thoughts and obtain your input. You can call us on 03 9481 0355 and ask for Veronica, who will be leading the project, or send us an email at email@example.com.
SSRV gratefully acknowledges funding provided by the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner Grants Program for these projects.
The 1970s will be remembered for many things: flared jeans, anti-Vietnam war rallies, and Daddy Cool doing a little thing called the Eagle Rock. For many vulnerable Victorians in need of legal assistance though, it will be remembered as a time of justice denied.
Back in the 70s, legal advice or representation was considered a privilege reserved only for the wealthy. This meant that most low-income families, especially those relying on social security, were at the mercy of the system, with little recourse if they felt an incorrect decision had been made or if their concerns weren’t being addressed.
This year we celebrate 50 years of Community Legal Centres in Victoria. To fully appreciate how much of a difference CLCs have made to the lives of so many in our community, we need to step back in time.
The 1960s had been a time of increased social awareness and shining a light on disadvantage and inequity, and there was a growing awareness of the impact of laws, as well as access to justice, on vulnerable members of the community, .
Nowhere was this more so than amongst groups of young students and lawyers, passionate about change, and enough fire in their bellies to make it happen.
In the early 70s, a group of Monash University students got together and started a phone advice line, which eventually became the Springvale Monash Legal Service. The service is still operating today under the name South-East Monash Legal Service.
Around the same time, a group of lawyers began providing free legal advice in the basement of the Fitzroy Town Hall, and over in St Kilda, a similar service was being provided.
These three organisations were the first non-Aboriginal Legal Services operating in Australia. The first Aboriginal Legal Service in Victoria, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service Co-operative Limited was established in 1973.
What these first Community Legal Centres had in common was a shared a desire for social justice, and greater rights and equality for all Victorians.
Social Security Rights Victoria was founded in 1987, although it was originally known as Welfare Rights Unit Inc.
In the 10 years prior, the Brotherhood of St Laurence had been assisting people to deal with social security matters through their Unemployment Rights Service. It soon became clear, though, that the need for assistance was greater than could be met by the Brotherhood and its associates.
As the new millennium kicked-off, an increasing number of people began accessing information and government services online, and SSRV and most CLCs began developing websites and social media presences, where people could access information about the social security system and how to contact them for assistance.
Over the years, SSRV’s use of digital technology has become more sophisticated, and this is especially true in relation to the Disability Support Pension (DSP).
The DSP can be challenging, with an eligibility criteria that is complex, and in 2020, SSRV launched DSP Help, a free online resource for DSP applicants and the people who support them, aimed at helping them understand the DSP, the eligibility criteria, how to get suitable medical evidence, and how to approach an application.
Over the past 50 years, Community Legal Centres have advocated for greater support for victim survivors of family violence, prisoner rights, the rights of tenants in public housing, and those who have been issued Centrelink debts, amongst many other issues.
Often the people they represent have been the most marginalised and are vulnerable, including the poor, young people, people with mental health issues, those with disabilities, migrants, refugees, prisoners, and women.
Currently, there are now more than 47 Community Legal Centres and Aboriginal Legal Services operating in Victoria. Many are place-based, providing services across a range of legal issues to a geographic community, while others are specialist legal centres that focus on specific areas of law such as social security, or cohorts of people such as women.
There are currently around 4,000 staff and volunteers working at Community Legal Centres across Victoria, which now provide more than 100,000 legal services every year for Victorians who face economic and social disadvantage, who cannot afford legal representation and are not eligible for legal aid.
This year we pay tribute to the remarkable people past and present, who have worked and volunteered at CLCs and recognise the exceptional services CLCs provide today in pursuit of a fairer and more just Victoria.
A new campaign has been launched that will help people who are seeking legal advice better understand their lawyer’s ethical obligations.
The ‘Your Right to Ask’ campaign was developed in response to the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants, and encourages people to ask their lawyer questions so as to better understand their rights and how they can work with their lawyer.
We know that for many people speaking with a lawyer can be daunting and a little bit intimidating, and clients don’t always have a clear idea of what questions to ask, or even what to expect from their lawyer. The ‘Your Right to Ask’ campaign can make it that much easier.
The campaign has been developed by the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner, in conjunction with the Law Institute of Victoria, the Victorian Bar, Victoria Legal Aid and the Federation of Community Legal Centres, with support from a number of other legal organisations.
“A client who feels comfortable asking questions is a client better empowered to make decisions,” says
Victorian Legal Services Board CEO and Commissioner Fiona McLeay.
‘Your Right to Ask’ is comprised of a checklist, made up of questions people can ask their lawyer to ensure they understand their lawyer’s obligations to them as a client.
The questions cover:
- Before and at your first appointment
- Your lawyer’s ethical obligations
- Costs and billing
- If you have a problem with your lawyer
Information is available in multiple languages.
SSRV encourages everyone seeking legal advice to check out the ‘Your Right to Ask’ campaign here.
We also encourage you to ask the team at SSRV the questions as relevant to our services. They will provide you with the relevant information or link you to the person who can assist you the best.