SSRV Community Lawyer Nhirushni Somasundaram shares details about how our work on SSRV’s Family Violence project is helping some of our community’s most vulnerable people.
Every day, Centrelink makes thousands of decisions about payments, debts and other matters governed by the Social Security Act 1991. The number of decisions also increases significantly in the aftermath of a disaster.
Sometimes Centrelink gets these decisions wrong. Any decision can be appealed at no cost through a process conducted by an Authorised Review Officer.
If you aren’t happy with the review officer’s decision, this can also be appealed at no cost, to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Economic Justice Australia has published more detail about this.
This Reconciliation Week (27 May – 3 June), SSRV remembers the importance of privileging and amplifying First Nations’ voices and we add our voice to calls for reconciliation and justice.
Reconciliation is a journey for all Australians – as individuals, families, communities, organisations and importantly as a nation. At the heart of this journey are relationships between the broader Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The theme of Reconciliation Week 2021 is ‘Be Brave. Make Change.’ It’s a challenge to all Australians to Be Brave and tackle the unfinished business of reconciliation so we can Make Change for the benefit of all Australians.
For our part, SSRV are working at making our organisation more culturally safe and respectful, and to better engage and respond to First Nations clients and community.
SSRV believes we can all be brave and play a role in reconciliation and collectively build relationships and communities that value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, histories, cultures, and futures.
Ellie* is a single mum of three girls living in Melbourne’s west. She is a survivor of an abusive relationship with the father of two of her daughters.
In 2009, Ellie received a $30,000 overpayment debt from Centrelink. Centrelink had made a decision that she had received the incorrect rate of Parenting Payment for a number of years leading up to 2009, as she had been paid the single rate of payment.
Centrelink alleged that she was only eligible for the lower couple rate of Parenting Payment. Ellie tried to challenge this decision on her own through the Authorised Review Officer (ARO) review process, and later to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).
This was an incredibly difficult task for her as she suffers from multiple severe mental health conditions, which were being exassabated by having to recount the instances of violence perpetrated on her in the years prior to the debt being raised.
Ellie was unrepresented at the AAT in 2014 and was unaware that legal services might have been available to her at the time. She did not know she had a further right of review, to the General Division of the AAT, and started the process of slowly paying off the large debt, which left her and her daughters in a position of severe financial hardship.
In 2020 Ellie was referred by another community legal centre to SSRV.
SSRV assisted Ellie in arguing that she should be given an extension of time to have her matter reviewed by the General Division of the AAT, with the benefit of having legal representation, given the compelling circumstances in her case.
Ellie, with the assistance of a legal representative from SSRV, was successful in obtaining a six-year extension of time from the AAT.
SSRV then represented Ellie in a review application at the General Division and successfully negotiated a settlement agreement to have the full $30,000 debt waived and all previously recovered amounts were repaid to Ellie.
Ellie told her SSRV lawyer that she has felt a huge weight lifted, having someone help her to navigate this complex appeals process and that she could not have done it without the “caring, compassionate and dedicated support of the SSRV staff and students” she worked with since coming to SSRV in 2020.
A common story
Ellie’s story illustrates, firstly, how difficult it can be to navigate the tribunal processes and secondly, some of the challenges that victim survivors of family violence face with Centrelink.
Currently, the steps for appeal in a Centrelink matter are:
1 – Authorised Review Officer – the internal appeal in Centrelink
2 – Administrative Appeals Tribunal First Tier, called the Social Services and Child Support Division
3 – Administrative Appeals Tribunal Second Tier, called the General Division.
It’s important to know that there are short time limits to appeal. Although the Tribunal does have the discretion to extend the time, do seek early advice because delay can affect the exercise of the discretion and any backdated payments.
As the overwhelming majority of people self-represent in the AAT, if they miss the deadline to apply for an appeal, many do not know how to navigate the process of seeking an extension.
If the extension of time is opposed, as Ellie’s was, they then need to attend a hearing to argue that the extension of time should be granted, before the General Division will consider the substantive issues. SSRV was able to assist Ellie with this process and we recommend clients call us if they are in this situation.
In Ellie’s instance, SSRV was able to negotiate a settlement on the basis that the Department could use its discretion to decide that Ellie was not a member of a couple, even if there were some characteristics of a relationship present.
The consequences of this were that Ellie could have some of the money that she had already paid off the debt, returned to her.
To determine whether someone is a member of a couple, Centrelink will look at your:
· Financial arrangements
· Accommodation and household set up
· Social relationship
· Sexual relationship
· Commitment to each other
If you’d like to read more about this, see this factsheet about relationship status and Centrelink.
If you need more assistance, please get in touch.
Legal Assistance Line: 0419 793 652 or 03 9481 0355
Worker Help Line (for support workers): 0429 450 346 or 03 9481 0655
*Names and some identifying details have been changed.
I’m Graeme, the Financial Counsellor at SSRV. I work as part of the Integrated Services Project, in partnership with FCVic and have been in the post since November last year.
I previously worked in the banking industry for many years and I’ve worked as a financial counsellor here in Melbourne and in Sydney.
I’m originally from the UK, and lived in Asia for some years before moving to Australia 20 years ago. Two of our children are now off at university, with the younger one poised to fly the nest in the next few years.
When I am not working, I am involved in local rugby (in a non-playing role these days) and in Life Saving – in fact, I’ve recently started as a pool life guard. The irony of an ageing Englishman who arrived in Australia barely able to swim 50 metres now being tasked with guarding the aquatic safety of others, is not lost on me.
Like our work at SSRV however, it is reassuring how, with training, attitude and teamwork, we can bring surprising and positive outcomes. I am looking forward to continuing to be part of such a diverse and dedicated group and organisation.
SSRV Community Lawyer, Liz Divers, gives an update for people who are involved in the Centrelink Robodebt action.
Social Security Rights Victoria is recruiting a Principal Lawyer. 38 hours per week. Applications close 17 May 2022. Please see the job advertisement and position on the Ethical Jobs website – https://www.ethicaljobs.com.au/members/SSRV/principal-lawyer-6
Centrelink has many requirements of people who seek assistance
A disaster, such as a bushfire or a flood, can take away your home, your business, or the business you work for. Sadly, disasters happen all too often in Victoria.
Some people have their first experience with Centrelink after a disaster. For example, they may apply for Jobseeker payment, a disaster payment, or a crisis payment.
Centrelink has many requirements of people who seek assistance, including:
· Identification documents
· Financial information
· Information about family relationships
To be ready for such a situation, it’s a good idea to have your important information easily accessible to take with you in the event you need to flee a disaster. You could also consider securely storing the information online.
For example, think about:
· Can you access your bank account if you don’t have your own phone or computer?
· Would you remember who you’re insured with if all your documents are gone?
· How will you go with 100 points of ID?
These are challenging things to think about but – especially if you live in a bushfire or flood zone – its best to think about them before disaster strikes, rather than afterwards.
Our Disaster Preparedness and Response Plan will tackle this challenge from a range of perspectives. Find out more.
Over the past two years SSRV has been working on our DSP Help Project, using human-centred design and technology to build a resource that applicants, support workers, health workers and others can use to better understand the Disability Support Pension (DSP) application and appeals processes. We gratefully acknowledge that the Project has been funded by the Victorian Legal Services Board Grants Program.
As the project winds up, we’d like to take a moment to talk about what’s been achieved and look at the future of DSP Help.
What did we do?
The core of the DSP Help Project was the creation of the online resource: https://dsphelp.org.au/. Designed with the needs of DSP applicants and those supporting them in mind, DSP Help provides information and guidance to help navigate the DSP application and appeals processes.
The website includes:
Information about DSP eligibility and supporting medical evidence.
A medical evidence chatbot applicants can use to generate a customised evidence kit they can take to their doctors when seeking a letter or report in support of their application.
Information about appealing a rejected application.
Resources for doctors and other health workers who may be producing medical evidence for applicants.
Links to get further help from SSRV where needed.
The project was supported by and complemented SSRV’s legal practice. Some people need more assistance than a website can offer, and the DSP Help Project was able to assist them by resourcing a dedicated community lawyer to help provide advice and representation for people appealing DSP rejections.
What did we achieve?
In the two years we ran the DSP Help Project:
- More than 30,000 people made use of the DSP Help website.
- Almost 3,500 people used the medical evidence chatbot, and more than 2,000 created customised medical evidence kits to support their application or appeal.
- 191 legal services were delivered to individuals, including 18 representations at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
- Community Legal Education was delivered to almost 300 community, support and other workers helping people with the DSP.
Download the DSP Help Project Year Two report,
What’s in store for the future?
While the project may have come to an end, DSP Help and SSRV’s work in this space has not. The DSP Help website will remain online, so please, if you or someone you support needs information about the DSP please visit https://dsphelp.org.au/.
The DSP will likely remain one of the biggest reasons people get in touch with us and our lawyers will continue to provide advice and casework to people appealing rejected applications. If you or someone you support needs assistance, please contact us.
Get in Touch
SSRV is a state-wide community legal centres that provide specialist legal advice and assistance regarding Centrelink matters. DSP Help is part of the range of services offered by SSRV, including:
Legal Assistance Line (for individuals and carers): 03 9481 0355
Worker Help Line (for support workers and health professionals): 03 9481 0655
Or visit our websites:
In May 2021 the Senate referred an inquiry into the purpose, intent and adequacy of the Disability Support Pension (DSP) to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee. The Committee has now reported back on the Inquiry. Here’s what SSRV called for and what the report recommended.
You can read the full report here.
How was SSRV involved?
We knew we wanted to be a part of the inquiry process right from the outset. The DSP is such a big part of the work SSRV does – in fact, it’s the single biggest issue people call us about – and we knew our expertise and experience, and that of our clients would be incredibly valuable to the Committee.
Led by our DSP Help Project, SSRV developed a submission to the Inquiry highlighting issues in three main areas:
1. The DSP eligibility criteria and the challenges this creates for people living with disability trying to access income support.
2. Issues people have understanding the DSP eligibility criteria and how this is communicated to applicants and those supporting them, and in particular the challenges this creates when applicants seek to gather medical evidence to support their application.
3. Issues with how the DSP is administered, including challenging appeals processes and delays in processing applications.
Our submission16 recommendations. Notably, SSRV called for:
· Removing the requirement for conditions to be ‘fully’ diagnosed, treated and stabilised.
· Removing ‘Program of Support’ from the DSP eligibility criteria.
· Reintroducing the ‘Treating Doctor’s Report’ or introducing a similar mechanism to make collecting medical evidence easier.
The DSP Help Project
While the Inquiry was running SSRV was also continuing with our DSP Help Project, using human-centred design and technology to help applicants understand the complex criteria and evidentiary requirements for making a successful DSP application.
In this year of the project our focus was on doctors and other health workers, and designing our resources in way that makes their role in providing suitable medical evidence in support of an application clearer.
The consultation undertaken as part of this project revealed experiences that we felt needed to be shared with the Committee in addition to the Submission described above. SSRV approached the Committee to see if this was possible, then worked with Paper Giant, the service design consultancy working on DSP Help, to develop a supplementary submission. You can read this here (submission 90.1).
What’s in the report?
It is fantastic to see the Committee adopt in substance many of the reforms and recommendations SSRV and the broader sector have been calling for. In particular, the requested reviews of the eligibility criteria are very welcome.
SSRV is also glad to see the contributions of many people we regularly work with featuring so prominently in the report, including Economic Justice Australia’s (EJA) Linda Forbes, Australian Federation of Disability Organisations’ (AFDO) Patrick McGee and SSRV’s own DSP Help Community Lawyer Dermott Williams.
Dermott was invited to participate in one of the Inquiry’s hearings, appearing with Linda Forbes as a representative of an EJA member centre. Dermott used the opportunity to amplify the voices and experiences of DSP applicants trying to access the pension, and highlighted the difficulties they face in accessing clear and complete information about the eligibility criteria they are being assessed on. She also took the opportunity to reiterate key recommendations from SSRV’s submission, including the need to remove ‘Program of Support’ from the eligibility criteria.
SSRV looks forward to seeing the report recommendations actioned and implemented, but anticipates further advocacy work will be required in the coming years to help make the DSP a fairer and easier to access payment. For further information, check out EJA’s media release.
If you need help with the DSP
For assistance in understanding the DSP, gathering evidence and making an application, or appealing a rejection, please visit DSP Help.
If you need legal assistance for the DSP or another social security issue please call.
Individuals – Legal Assistance Line: 03 9481 0355, Monday to Friday, 9am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm.
Workers can phone SSRV’s Worker Help Line: 03 9481 0655, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.