DSP Help: leveraging the learnings

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 info@ssrv.org.au.

SSRV gratefully acknowledges funding provided by the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner Grants Program for these projects.

50 years of Victorian Community Legal Centres

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.

Read more about the history of CLCs in Victoria on the Federation of Community Legal Centres’ website.

Your Right to Ask

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:

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.

Emergencies & disasters and the role of legal and public sector agencies

On Tuesday 16 May 2023, SSRV’s CEO Gillian Wilks was one of four panellists participating in an in-person and live-streamed discussion, “Emergencies & disasters – what is the role of legal and public sector agencies?” as part of the Victorian Law Foundation’s annual Law Week.  

Gillian joined Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass, CEO of Tenants Victoria Jennifer Beveridge, and Program Manager at Disaster Legal Help Sharon Keith, in a wide-ranging discussion attended or viewed by almost 200 people.  

It was a great opportunity for Gillian to draw attention to the real-life social security legal issues experienced by people impacted by disasters, and the need for law reform to improve the way that the social security system responds to the needs of people and communities who are affected by bushfires, storms and floods, and of course the pandemic. 

You can watch a recording of the panel discussion here (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Elder abuse and Centrelink

This month marked World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. SSRV receives requests for support from older people who are experiencing misuse of power and trust in relation to their social security payments. Often this misuse of power is in regard to Centrelink nominee arrangements.

Centrelink Nominees

Centrelink has a process to allow a recipient to formally nominate an individual to act as their nominee. Different types of nominee arrangements are available through Centrelink, and generally a nominee can be authorised to receive information, enquire, update and/or act on the behalf of the Centrelink recipient in relation to their Centrelink payments. While this process can help those who aren’t able to manage their Centrelink arrangements themselves, misuse of this process can lead to financial abuse.

SSRV has seen instances where nominees have used their nominee appointment to change payment details and arrangements, diverting the payment away from the recipient and into their own bank account. This can result in the recipient facing severe financial hardship, facing eviction and unable to pay for basic necessities. 

These are often complicated circumstances and SSRV has assisted the recipient to navigate the process of removing the nominee arrangements and restoring the payment arrangements.

Aged Care Specialist Officers are available through Centrelink and can assist individuals living in aged care services with their Centrelink payments. This can be a useful contact in circumstances where a person is experiencing elder abuse in regards to their Centrelink payments. Further information can be found here.

Further resources

The elder abuse resources published by Seniors Rights Victoria offer helpful advice and guidance to for affected people, their loved ones and professionals.

Anyone considering appointing a nominee for Centrelink or wishing to add or cancel a nomination can link to Centrelink’s information here.

Opportunity for reform

We believe Centrelink has a role to play in ensuring nominees are acting only in the best interests of an older person when accessing an older person’s Centrelink account.

There is opportunity for law and policy reform to include further checkpoints to ensure nominee processes are used only in the best interests of the recipient. For example, requirement of a written declaration when making significant changes to a recipient’s payment, such as specifying a new bank account or cancelling Centrepay arrangements, could provide further pathways for legal consequences.

Social Security Rights Victoria can assist clients and workers with advice and information on how to navigate the complexities of elder abuse in relation to Centrelink payments. Find out more here.

Welcome social security changes for single mother families

In the lead-up to the Federal Budget, SSRV threw our weight behind a campaign by the Council of Single Mothers and Their Children (CSMC) calling on the Government to raise the cut-off age for Parenting Payment Single.

At the time, Parenting Payment Single ended once the youngest child turned eight, leaving many recipients relying upon JobSeeker Payment at a significantly lower rate.

Single mother families are the poorest family structure in Australia, with more than a third living in poverty.

The CSMC petition called on people to urge the Government to help to change the lives of thousands of Australians in the May 2023 budget by ending the ParentsNext program and keeping parents on Parenting Payment Single while their children are in school.

It worked. The Federal Government has now announced two significant changes to social security as it relates to single parents.

The cutoff age to qualify for Parenting Payment Single has been raised from when the youngest child turns eight, to when they turn 14 years old.

The lift is set to take effect from September 20, 2023.

Parents receiving the payment will receive a base rate of $922.10 per fortnight, amounting to a $176.90 increase for people currently on JobSeeker Payment who will become eligible for Parenting Payment when the changes take effect.

The decision came just days after another win for single mothers, when the government announced it will end the controversial ParentsNext program from 1 July 2024.

The scheme, introduced in 2018, required parenting payment recipients to attend job agencies and participate in prescribed activities in order to keep their welfare payments.

The program was continually criticised by community and welfare organisations and also faced criticism from the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Women’s Equality Taskforce, and the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee.

“Single parents carry the world on their backs,” said Prime Minister Albanese about the changes. “They sacrifice so much to give their children a better life. This is about giving them the greater security and better support they deserve.”

SSRV would like to thank all our friends and colleagues who signed the petition or shared their personal stories with the Prime Minister.

DSP Impairment Tables: Legislation Update

On 1 April 2023 the Disability Support Pension (‘DSP’) Impairment Tables were updated. Here’s an update on what changes have been made and what they mean for you or your clients who may be trying to access the DSP.

What are the Impairment Tables?

To be eligible for the DSP, an applicant must meet the medical eligibility criteria. One aspect of this criteria, is scoring 20 points on the Impairment Tables, either on one table or across multiple tables. There are 15 tables, each covering different kinds of symptoms a person may experience. Each table has four levels of impairment severity ratings, mild (5 points), moderate (10 points), and severe (20 points.)

Why have the Impairment Tables Changed?

The previous Impairment Tables were due to expire in April 2022. This was extended to April 2023 to enable a review and consultation process, which was initially disrupted by the pandemic. In short, the tables were designed to sunset at some point, and that was an opportunity to review and make changes.

SSRV participated in the review and consultation process and pleasingly our feedback is reflected in the new Tables. 

Not all of our suggestions have been adopted, and we will continue to advocate for further improvements through our ongoing systemic advocacy activities.

The new instrument, Social Security (Tables for the Assessment of Work-related Impairment for Disability Support Pension) Determination 2023, has now been finalised and commenced on 1 April 2023. It applies to claims for Disability Support Pension made on or after 1 April 2023.

What has changed?

The changes include a large number of small things, and two big things.

In terms of small changes, most of the Tables have revised wording and examples, which the Department of Social Services (DSS) believes will better reflect the impact of disability on a person’s functional ability. Our view is that some of these are good, others less so. But the takeaway is that it’s important to use the new Tables when considering which impairment rating should be assigned, of or if the assigned rating looks reasonable.

Changes to ‘Fully Diagnosed, Full Treated and Fully Stabilised’

Prior to the amendments, an applicant needed to demonstrate that their medical condition was ‘permanent,’ meaning that the condition was ‘fully diagnosed, fully treated and fully stabilised.’

The amendments remove the terminology of a ‘permanent condition.’ The Determination now reads that a medical condition must be ‘diagnosed, reasonably treated and stabilised.’

DSS has advised the language has been reformed to better reflect the actual requirements people must meet. The Explanatory Statement states that previously the legislation required a condition be ‘fully treated’ but in practice the Secretary would accept a condition that was ‘reasonably treated.’ The Explanatory Statement goes on to say that the term ‘fully treated’ overstated that actual requirements and made the threshold appear higher than it ought to have been. Our service observed that this led to confusion amongst applicants, their treating doctors and their supports, and it is hoped that clarifying this will help to simplify the process for applicants.

The amendments require a person’s condition to be reasonably treated with consideration to the treatment options available to them. The Social Security Guide has examples of when applicants may not proceed with treatment, but it can still be considered that their condition is ‘reasonably treated’ as they’ve exhausted all reasonable treatment options available to them. This includes situations when the treatment;

· Is prohibitively expensive or involves long travel

· Is experimental and may cause further harm to the individual

· Is not expected to result in significant functional impairment

Changes for mental health conditions

This change is a simple yet impactful, and worth talking about separately. Prior to the amendments a mental health impairment required that the corresponding condition was diagnosed either by a psychiatrist, or a doctor with evidence from a clinical psychologist.

We’ve seen the impact on our clients of such a specific diagnostic requirement, either through clients not being able to access the right kind of psychologist due to lack of availability or cost, or clients simply not understanding which psychologist they need to attend for DSP medical evidence.

We’re pleased to note this requirement has now been broadened, and evidence of diagnosis from a registered psychologist will be accepted. 

DSP Help – Updated 

Readers may be familiar with SSRV’s website DSP Help. SSRV created this website to help applications and health professionals with the process of applying for the DSP.

The website has information about the application process and eligibility criteria for the DSP. It also has a ‘Medical Evidence Bot’ which allows an individual to enter details about their medical impairments and then creates a personalised DSP Evidence Kit. The kit includes a template letter which can be provided to treating doctors to obtain new medical evidence.

DSP Help has now been updated to reflect the new changes.

Help end policy-induced single mother poverty

SSRV is supporting a campaign by the Council of Single Mothers and Their Children, calling on the Government to raise the cut-off age for Parenting Payment Single.

Currently, Parenting Payment Single ends once the youngest child has turned eight, when many recipients are forced onto JobSeeker at a significantly lower rate.

Single mother families are the poorest family structure in Australia, with more than a third living in dire poverty.

SSRV believes that single mothers deserve to be given the chance to raise their children and provide the best possible life for them – they need access to Parenting Payment Single until their youngest finishes school, so they can afford to feed and house their children.

The Council of Single Mothers and Their Children (CSMC) has launched a petition asking the Government to help to change the lives of thousands of Australian women and children in the May 2023 budget.

The petition calls for the government to:

  • Restore single mothers and their children to a livable level of income support.
  • Give single mothers and their children a better chance by ending mutual obligations and keeping parents on Parenting Payment Single while their children are in school.
  • Condemn the policy-induced choice between violence and poverty that hundreds of thousands of women face each year.

Research by Professor Anne Summers AO shows that as many as 60 per cent of single mothers are single because they fled violence.

According to CSMC, in 2023, single mothers are less supported than they were 50 years ago. They often cannot pay their rent, or their phone bills or register their cars. Too many go without meals so their kids can eat.

Sign the petition here

These recommendations are endorsed by the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce, Unions NSW, the National and Victorian Councils of Single Mothers & their Children, UTS Centre for Social Justice & Inclusion and the National Council of Women of Australia.

When is a couple not a couple?

The rate of Centrelink income support for a couple is less than the rate for two individuals. This is based on the premise that a couple living together can pool resources and expenses, and therefore have lower living costs compared to two single people.

The social security system assumes that people in relationships share income and assets. There is little discretion for the reality that, for many couples,  this is simply not the case. 

Member of a couple provisions

Section 4 of the Social Security Act 1991 defines what it means to be a member of a couple. Usually Centrelink will consider a person a member of a couple if they are legally married, or in a registered relationship or in a de facto relationship.

The member of a couple provisions allows little discretion to consider the gendered power imbalance that exists in many relationships and this is especially true in cases of family violence, where we know that women are often denied access to money and resources. They may actually have no access to money or assets, despite being in a relationship.

Section 24 of the Social Security Act 1991 provides decision-makers with limited discretion to treat someone as not being a member of a couple, even if they meet the definition of a couple. Centrelink will usually only treat a person as not a member of a couple if there are ‘special reasons’, including an inability to pool financial resources and financial difficulty.

The discretion to treat a person as not a member of a couple is an important safeguard for people experiencing family violence.

Family violence and updates to the Social Security Guide

When family violence is considered in the context of section 24, it can allow a person to access a single rate of payment despite being in a relationship, with their rate of payment unaffected by their partner’s income and assets. 

SSRV has supported moves for family violence to be highlighted as a reason to exercise such discretion in the updated text of the Social Security Guide (SSG).

The SSG provides guidance about the application of social security law for original decision-makers, review officers, and Administrative Appeals Tribunal members in relation to the discretion not to treat a person as a member of a couple. 

This year, we anticipate amendments will be made to the SSG to make references to family violence more explicit and to ensure that family violence is properly considered by decision-makers as a factor in making a member of a couple assessment. These amendments are yet to be released, keep an eye on our newsletter for further details of the changes when they occur.

We hope these changes will work to support family violence survivors who are reliant on social security, by enabling family violence to be properly considered in the decision-making process. 

SSRV believes responses to the endemic levels of family violence in Australia must take into account the significant intersections between family violence and the social security system.

Access to income support provides a vital safety net for women living with or escaping family violence. Income security is crucial to safety at times of greatest vulnerability, and social security support is often an essential resource for women to re-establish themselves as they rebuild their lives.

Perpetrators may also abuse the social security system to exert power and control over victim-survivors, which is why it is essential that the system is sufficiently sensitive to the prevalence of family violence and be flexible enough to respond to it in individual cases.

Reforms to the social security system have the potential to support many victim-survivors of violence, increasing their capacity to escape abuse and its ongoing effects.

Did you know?

Our interactions with people who have lived through disasters such as Black Summer, floods and the pandemic have told us that these events can have multiple enduring impacts on people’s lives.

A person’s home may be damaged or destroyed; their job may be affected, or their business closed. They may be concerned about the effects on their loved ones; they may be travel-limited due to road closure or public transport failure; their children’s school may be closed; their neighbour’s house may have been damaged rather than their own. 

In other words, they may be experiencing constant stress, even trauma – and this can lead to a reduced capacity to address Centrelink requirements for a considerable period. 

Mutual obligations suspension

Although the government has the power to suspend mutual obligations unilaterally and temporarily for disaster affected regions, this approach is often limited to an initial exemption of four weeks and restricted to ‘major declared natural disasters’ on a postcode basis. This often excludes people living in adjacent areas, or areas significantly affected by disaster but not included in the declared postcodes, despite being impacted as individuals and as a community. 

If not within the declared zones, individuals must approach Centrelink or their employment service provider, explain the impact of the disaster upon their ability to seek work and seek an individual mutual obligation exemption. The Social Security Guide suggests that if an individual exemption is granted for a natural disaster, a period of two weeks is ‘generally appropriate’.

These short periods of exemptions are inadequate and can contribute to the retraumatising of disaster affected people. Often an entire community is faced with recovering housing, businesses, essential services and infrastructure. This approach of short exemptions requiring multiple extensions places the responsibility on people likely experiencing considerable pressure and exposes them to risk of traumatisation by repeatedly being required to re-tell their story. If they are unable to, they face their income support payments being suspended or cancelled.

Those experiencing vulnerability, trauma, job loss, restricted access to vital support services and a reduced ability to rely on their community, friends and family, shouldn’t have to continuously plead special circumstances and should be granted relief commensurate with the duration of hardship they and their community are facing as a result of disaster.

During 2023 we are working to keep this issue in front of law and policy makers.

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