Staff Profile: Nhirushni Somasundaram, community lawyer

I am community lawyer at SSRV and my area of work focuses on assisting individuals who are victims of family violence as well as those who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic navigate our complex social security system. 

I am very passionate about ensuring that all individuals receive an adequate income through which they can enjoy a decent standard of living, irrespective of any vulnerability or disadvantage they face.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of ensuring that we have a more accessible social security system in order to create a fair and just society. Through my work at SSRV, I have been able to assist the most vulnerable members of our community and empower them to understand their rights to social security payments. 

I have also had the privilege to contribute to the development of students entering the legal profession by being involved in the Social Security Advocacy Clinic in partnership with Monash University.

Although I grew up in Melbourne, I am extremely thankful to my parents who made the difficult decision to give up their life in Sri Lanka and move to Australia in order to give my siblings and I a life that was not marred by a civil war.  

Outside of work, I am passionate about giving back to the community and enjoy volunteering at events such as the Good Friday Appeal. I am also an avid runner, having completed two half-marathons. When I am not running, I love spending time with my furry friend, Ella, who constantly demands treats in return for spending time with me.

SSRV Stories: Annarietta

Annarietta* is living with chronic fatigue syndrome, and also a spinal condition that can limit movement of the back and neck and cause blood pressure problems. She also experiences mental health issues.

She was receiving the Disability Support Pension (DSP) in the early 2000s but lost eligibility when she moved overseas for several years. On returning to Australia, Annarietta attempted to engage in paid employment but found her condition made it impossible and eventually applied for the DSP again. 

Annarietta’s application was rejected by the original decision maker, the Centrelink Authorised Review Officer, and the first tier of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). She had appealed this decision to the second tier of the AAT and had been through a number of conferences as part of the process. During these conferences representatives for Services Australia maintained that Annarietta was not eligible for the DSP. That’s when Annarietta sought assistance from SSRV. An SSRV community lawyer assisted Annarietta to prepare submissions ahead of her hearing and had planned to represent her at the hearing itself. 

Fortunately, following the submissions, Services Australia’s representatives offered to settle the matter before the hearing proceeded, agreeing that she should receive the DSP. 

SSRV worked with Annarietta to ensure this agreement was implemented in a timely fashion.

It had been three years between the initial claim and Services Australia agreeing Annarietta was eligible.

In that time, Annarietta was reliant on JobSeeker Payment. She was required to either look for work she knew she wouldn’t be able to perform, or get regular medical certificates from her doctors explaining that she can’t work. If not for the temporary rate increase during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, she also would have been on a lower rate of payment than that to which she was entitled.

Annariette told SSRV that the entire process had been traumatic and has worsened her conditions. 

Annarietta has the capacity to do some work, provided she is afforded flexibility. She believes this capacity to work has been diminished by the worsening of her conditions, and this would not have happened if the process had not been drawn out to such an extent. 

Annarietta’s experience was fed into SSRV’s systemic policy activities, and in particular into our submission to the Senate Community Affairs Committee Inquiry into the purpose, intent and adequacy of the Disability Support Pension.

Annarietta’s story highlights the challenges created directly by being on the wrong payment, which sit on top of the other challenges people living with disability face. These can be exacerbated by the length of time the process takes.

Annarietta hopes that sharing her experiences will help others in her position.

Stories like Annarietta’s are not uncommon amongst SSRV’s clients. We generally tell clients to expect a DSP application to take at least three months to be processed, but many take longer. By the time a matter reaches the AAT’s General Division (Tier 2) it would be uncommon for less than a year to have passed since the initial application. And in that time the pressures of life, of living on less adequate income, and of having to engage with activities beyond their capabilities or risk losing that income, all add up.

It’s important to note that this matter was concluded by agreement. That is, representatives for Services Australia decided they agreed that Annarietta should be on the DSP and that they would not contest the hearing. 

This is a great outcome for our client, and it shows the value in having a lawyer with social security expertise advocating on an applicant’s behalf; it was, after all, the submissions SSRV prepared that led to this outcome.

But it’s also an example of a matter that could have – and should have – been resolved much earlier and with much less stress to Annarietta. DSP eligibility criteria is complex, as is providing medical evidence in support of an application or appeal. It needs to be simplified. Accessing appropriate income support when living with disability should not be complex.

SSRV continues to advocate for systemic change in this area. But we also offer practical support right now. If you, someone you care for, one of your clients, or one of your patients needs assistance accessing the DSP, start with DSP Help.

DSP Help is a free online resource that will help demystify the DSP and assist in gathering the best medical evidence to support an application or appeal. In 2021 we updated the website with information targeted at doctors and other health workers to better help them when asked to support a DSP applicant.

If you need more assistance, please get in touch.

Legal Assistance Line (for individuals and carers): 0419 793 652 or 03 9481 0355

Worker Help Line (for support workers and health professionals): 0429 450 346 or 03 9481 0655

*Name has been changed

International Women’s Day: how social security law unfairly affects women

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias. At SSRV we see the many ways in which social security law in Australia is biased towards traditional family structures and couples – and how this disproportionately and unfairly affects women.

Systemic bias to traditional finances 

An example of systemic bias to traditional finances for families is when a partner’s income is higher than the income cut off point for a partnered person, which prevents the other partner from receiving the Centrelink payment or pension, even if they would otherwise be eligible. 

SSRV has advised women whose partners have refused to give them access to any money, even though they are ineligible for social security payments because that partner earns too much.

The existing social security arrangement assumes that couples share and access all income evenly, which is outdated and not in line with the way many modern couples arrange their finances. 

In this way, the system perpetrates economic injustice on these women and is out of line with the reality of many women and families in Australia.

Research shows that 15.7 per cent of women in Australia experience economic abuse, and that economic insecurity increases the risk of experiencing intimate partner violence. In light of this, Centrelink should provide a more responsive and timely mechanism to ensure that women who are experiencing economic abuse can easily access payments when they are needed.

Systemic bias to families’ traditional model of care

Another way the system perpetrates injustice on women is through a bias towards a traditional model of parenting with one parent being the primary carer. 

An example of this is Parenting Payment, which can only be paid to one parent (either at a single or a coupled rate). The payment can only be paid to the primary carer of the child, and where both parents are in need and have 50/50 care, Centrelink must make an assessment of the party in greater need.

Again, this bias towards traditional models of having a single primary carer means many parents with genuine equal responsibility for a child miss out on receiving payments.

Numerous clients have told SSRV that, as a result, they have been unable to buy medicine or foods for their children. 

The social security system must become fairer and let go of traditional assumptions and biases about families’ income and asset distributions.

SSRV legal advice

SSRV can provide advice to people who have experienced social security issues as a result of economic or other violence. Clients can call our Legal Assistance Line on 03 9481 0355 and workers can call 9481 0655.

Principal Lawyer

• Opportunity to join a dynamic team at a specialist community legal centre
assisting vulnerable and disadvantaged Victorians with Centrelink legal issues
• Full time, 38 hours per week, ongoing subject to funding
• Wage based on the Social Community Home Care and Disability Services
Industry Award Level 7, plus over-award payment, leave loading, portable
long service leave and superannuation guarantee contributions. Salary
packing available
• Based in Fitzroy

About SSRV
SSRV is an independent, state-wide community legal centre that specialises in social
security and related law, policy and procedure. Our vision is for a fair and just society
in which all people are able to receive a guaranteed adequate income in order to
enjoy a decent standard of living. SSRV’s contribution to this vision is the provision
of legal services to vulnerable and disadvantaged Victorians, and those who support
them, which assist them to secure and protect their right to equitable social security

About the position
The Principal Lawyer provides leadership and works collaboratively as part of a
small but growing team in a state-wide, specialist community legal centre.
The Principal Lawyer oversees SSRV’s legal practice, undertakes legal casework,
advocacy and representation services, and contributes to stakeholder engagement,
community legal education and legal policy activities. As the most senior lawyer in
the organisation, it is expected that the Principal Lawyer will take on more complex
legal matters and lead strategic casework and advocacy.

The position reports to and works co-operatively with the SSRV Director.

What we are looking for a senior lawyer
• with at least 5 years post admission experience
• with experience as a Principal Lawyer or Senior Lawyer and who holds, or is
eligible to hold, a Principal legal practising certificate
• with executive/senior management experience
• with experience in social security and/or administrative law and in providing
representation in courts/tribunals
• with experience in legal practice management, in meeting regulatory and risk
management requirements and in supervising legal and paralegal work
performed by others
• who is committed to client-centred and holistic legal service delivery, using
evidence from direct service delivery to inform systemic advocacy, and who
values working collaboratively, flexibly and innovatively.

For inquiries about the position please contact the SSRV Director, on (03) 9481

The position description can be downloaded here.

Applications close 11.59pm, 20 March 2022.

Applications must address the key selection criteria outlined in the position
description and include an up-to-date resume.

Outreach Report: Gippsland Farm Succession Planning Days

By Dermott Williams

SSRV would like to thank Gippsland Community Legal Service – and in particular, Simone Elias – for inviting us to be part of the 2021 Farm Succession Planning Days and bringing this opportunity to life.

At the start of December 2021, I was fortunate enough to have had an opportunity for outreach in East Gippsland as part of our Bushfire Response Project. I’d like to take a moment to share a little about that experience, what we did, and what I learned from the experience.

Farm Succession Planning Days

Farm succession is an important issue for farmers and rural communities. What exactly happens when a farmer decides it’s time to stop personally working their land, and maybe give the next generation a go? What are the implications? How wide is the impact? And most importantly, how do you plan for it?

It was this we were hoping to help with as part of Bushfire Recovery Victoria’s Farm Succession Planning Days. Along with other legal and financial organisations working in the area, I presented at a series of sessions across East Gippsland, ranging from Bendoc and Bonang near the New South Wales border, to Genoa and Cann River in the east, and Gelantipy and Buchan in the hills west of the Snowy River.

My contribution was around Age Pension eligibility, and the special rules and particular circumstances that come up for farmers. As we were informed when planning the events, and was confirmed during the sessions themselves, Centrelink isn’t an option many farmers even consider.

“They won’t give me the pension, my farm is worth too much.”

But as it turns out, there are some very specific rules to make it easier for farmers in these situations to access the age pension. And that was my goal with these sessions. To raise awareness and give farmers more options to consider.

“Thank you. I would not have considered that as an option before speaking with you.”

The Farm Succession Planning Days were a great success, with farmers walking away with more options than they had before, both in this sphere and in those of the other presenters.

Reaching our to Rural Communities

What I found interesting were the differences between the farmers in each community. They each had a different feel and it was obvious that some were closer than others. It was also clear that each community had different issues on their minds, with some more focussed on ownership structures for their farms, and others very interested in enduring powers of attorney.

What was less surprising were the similarities. These were people who would outright tell you they were unlikely to pick up a phone and call you for help. Not if they haven’t met you before. Not if they can’t put a face to the name. And for me personally, that was the most valuable part of the trip: Making a connection with a cohort of people who would otherwise have difficulty accessing our service. I’m hopeful there will be more opportunities like this in the future for exactly this reason.

Responding to Bushfires as a Lawyer 

I grew up in West Gippsland, so travelling down this way wasn’t new to me, though I hadn’t been this far east before. Something else that wasn’t exactly new was seeing the damage from fires. And yet, getting up close with it, even almost two years after Black Summer, is still confronting. 

The moment that stands out to me was driving up to Gelantipy and seeing the trees that come right to the edge of the road on both sides just being completely burned out. Imagining what that must have been like at the time, if one was unlucky enough to find themselves stuck driving through that still elicits a strong emotional response. 

The farmers’ own stories were far more confronting. Whether it was recounting their efforts to defend property, making the choice to stay or go, or just describing exactly how fast the fires could race up a hill. It was clear from the many conversations I had over the week, that just like the marks on the land, there will still marks on the people too. 

And there were still practical – and legal – problems to solve. Fencing disputes, insurance issues, the Centrelink assets test, rebuilding, and accessing the Age Pension just to name a few. Working in this role I’ve seen the legal needs of bushfire affected people change over time. There’s a great demand for services – both on the ground and the specialists supporting them – to be resourced and ready to meet those needs at the time of an acute crisis. But disaster response doesn’t end there. Sometimes that help needs to come later, and sometimes it needs to be more general, to help a community get back on its feet holistically, and not just rebuild in the literal sense. 

And that would be my final reflection on this trip. As community lawyers practising in a very specialised area we can’t solve every problem those affected by bushfires have. But with the right resources and approaches in place there is a role to be played and good to be done. 

Plus it means you get to travel to some absolutely beautiful places. 

SSRV Legal Assistance Line March 2022

Please note due to technical difficulties our 94810355 and 94810299 numbers are not currently working. Please call 0419793652. We are hoping to resolve this as soon as possible.

Did you know?

If you are affected by a disaster, you may be eligible for a payment from Centrelink.

There are often disaster relief payments available through Centrelink following a disaster. These payments are usually specific to a declared disaster or event. The payments include lump sum payments and short-term ongoing payments.

These are examples of recent disaster payments:

· Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment – to support people who have lost income due to COVID-19 quarantine.

· Victorian Storms and Floods, June 2021

           – Disaster Recovery Payment – to support people who were seriously affected by the storms and floods in Victoria in June 2021

           – Disaster Recovery Allowance – to support people who lost income as a result of the storms and floods in Victoria in June 2021.

· MH17 Family Support Package – to support family members of Australian victims of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 who attend legal proceedings in the Netherlands.

Crisis payments are also available through Centrelink. These payments are available for people experiencing extreme circumstances which are not covered by a specific disaster relief payment.

The eligibility requirements for disaster and crisis payments can be found on the Centrelink website.

These payments, from the Australian Federal Government, recognise the impacts that disasters can have on people’s finances.

SSRV has commissioned a project to optimise our capability to respond to the social security needs of people affected by natural disasters. 

We recognise that disasters can quickly lead to complex situations, affecting multiple aspects of people lives, including confusion or trouble with social security payments.

Our Disaster Preparedness and Response Plan will tackle this challenge from a range of perspectives. Find out more.

Human rights and social security law

The United Nations World Day of Social Justice Day is a day when we recognise the injustice in our communities, examine our own privilege, and resolve to work towards a world that is just for all, not just some. 

Social Justice is at the heart of everything we do at SSRV. Our vision is for a fair and just society in which all people are able to receive a guaranteed adequate income in order to enjoy a decent standard of living.  

It’s a vision we believe Australians shares. It’s also a vision to which Australia has committed. 

Australia was involved in the drafting of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and through voting in support of the UDHR committed, internationally, to recognising that social security is a human right.

Australia is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognises ‘the right of everyone to social security’.

Also, having ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Australia undertook to ‘prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination … without distinction as to… national or ethnic origin… [t]he right to public health, medical care, social security and social services’. 

SSRV works to ensure these commitments are honoured. With a focus on vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our community, SSRV highlights injustices, unfair laws and practices and to propose solutions.  

This United Nations World Day of Social Justice Day, we reaffirm our commitment to make sure the most vulnerable Australians have the right to and access to a fair social security system. 

DSP Help: Workshop for Health Professionals, Advocates and People Helping with DSP Applications

SSRV’s Disability Support Pension (DSP) Help Project has been developed using Human-Centred Design and Technology to help people better understand the DSP, complete applications, and improve their chances of a successful appeal.

SSRV will be running a workshop on the DSP for health professionals, advocates, and other helping people with DSP applications, in early 2022. 

The workshop will cover DSP eligibility, the common challenges applicants face when applying, and how to avoid Centrelink misinterpreting supporting evidence. 

Our goal is to take the mystery out of how Centrelink makes DSP decisions, and to make it easier for doctors, health workers, advocates and others to help support people in accessing appropriate income support.

Workshop details

17 February 2022 at 2pm

It will run for 1-1.5 hours, including time for questions

The session will be run remotely. Connection details will be provided closer to the date for those who RSVP.

SSRV is offering this session free of charge

If you’re interested in attending the session, please RSVP by email to If your organisation has members or you have colleagues who may be interested in attending, please share this with them.

Pandemic related income support from the Federal Government: important changes you need to know

There are two Federal Government COVID-19 related support payments currently available; the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment and the National Health Emergency Crisis Payment (NHE Crisis Payment).

With daily figures of new coronavirus cases in Australia increasing, more people are finding themselves at home with the virus or needing to isolate as a contact. In response to this growing number of people unable to work, the Federal Government has once again adjusted the COVID-19 related hardship payments.

NHE Crisis Payment

The NHE Crisis Payment is available to people who are in receipt of a Centrelink benefit and who have lost income due to COVID-19 and are experiencing financial hardship as a result. 

Importantly, this payment is only available to people already in receipt of a Centrelink payment. 

It is a one-off payment, not an ongoing payment.

The payment rate is equivalent to a week’s pay at the maximum basic rate of an individual’s income support payment or ABSTUDY Living Allowance. It doesn’t include other allowances or supplements.  ‘

Eligible individuals are entitled to receive a maximum of two Crisis Payments for National Health Emergency in a six-month period. However, eligible individuals are only entitled to receive one payment per quarantine or self-isolation. 

Eligibility criteria

Individuals may be eligible for this payment if;  

· they are eligible for an income support payment or ABSTUDY Living Allowance from Centrelink; and

· they are in severe financial hardship; and

· they, or someone they’re caring for, are in quarantine or self-isolation because they are waiting for COVID-19 test results or have COVID-19.

The COVID-19 test must be a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test or positive rapid antigen test (RAT) result.

They, or the person they are caring for, must be in quarantine or self-isolation because they have been required to by:

· the Australian Government

· a state or territory government

· a health professional.

They can be in quarantine or self-isolation at home, in a motel, hospital or any other appropriate place.

They must submit evidence with their claim showing that they, or the person they are caring for, had either:

· a COVID-19 PCR test

· a positive RAT result.

They may be asked to submit evidence of financial hardship.

One of the biggest recent changes to the NHE Crisis Payment eligibility is that a RAT can now be used as proof that they’ve been infected with the virus, and are therefore potentially eligible for the payment.

Prior to this change, a laboratory PCR test was required as proof.

Keep in mind, a positive RAT or a photo of a positive RAT is insufficient to qualify. For Victorians, only RAT results registered with the Victorian Government will suffice.

You can read about the NHE Crisis Payment, here. Find out how to lodge an application.

Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment

The Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment is available to people who have lost work and income as a result of having to isolate because they have COVID-19, are a close contact of someone who has COVID-19 or are caring for a child under the age of 16 or adult with a visibility who has COVID-19 or has to isolate. 

Importantly, this payment is not available to people in receipt of most Centrelink benefit, such as JobSeeker Payment, Age Pension, Disability Support Pension, Carer Payment, Parenting Payment of a student payment.

Here’s what you need to know about the recent changes to the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment:


People who are eligible for the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment are those who are isolating due to being infected or are close contact.

They are also eligible if they are caring for a child under the age of 16 or someone with mental or physical disability who has COVID or has been identified as a close contact.

If they have sick leave owing from your employer, they will not be able to receive the payment.

If they receive a Family Assistance payment they will need to include the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment in their family income estimate as taxable income.

Couples who are isolating can both apply for the payment.

Who’s NOT eligible?

You are not eligible to receive the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment if you’re receiving income support payments such as Age Pension, Disability Support Pension, Austudy or JobSeeker.

People receiving parental leave or Dad and Partner Pay are also excluded.

If you have received other government payments during your isolation period, such as the COVID-19 Disaster Payment, you may also be ineligible.

Relying on rapid antigen test results

Like the NHE Crisis Payment, one of the biggest recent changes to the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment is that RAT can now be used as proof that you’ve been infected with the virus, and are therefore potentially eligible for the payment.

Prior to this change, a laboratory PCR test was required as proof.

Keep in mind, a positive RAT or a photo of a positive rat is insufficient to qualify. For Victorians, only RAT results registered with the Victorian Government will suffice.

How much is the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment?

Previously, the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment was a $750 lump sum payment that covers seven days.

As of 18 January, 2022, this has changed to a tiered system:

– If you have lost over 20 hours of work you will still receive the full $750.

– If you lose between eight and 20 hours, you will only receive $450.

– Anyone who loses less than eight hours of work will no be longer be eligible for the payment.

Means testing

From 18 January 2022 the payment will also be means tested. If you have $10,000 or more in savings, you will not get the payment.

How do I apply?

You can apply now, through an online form on the Services Australia website or by calling 180 22 66.

If you have applied and are concerned you haven’t received an outcome or any response from Services Australia, you can also call 180 22 66 to obtain information and assistance.

Unsure about what the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment means for you? You’re not alone

SSRV are concerned that the nature of pandemic payments such as the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment may mean vulnerable people could miss important details in the fine print or unknowingly making mistakes in the application process.

“It is always a little bit difficult to work out if you are eligible for income support from Centrelink or not,” SSRV Community lawyer Aidan McCarthy told ABC News this week.

“Because these particular payments are required urgently and the process for getting them is less intense than other pensions, things could go wrong.

“We have concerns people could be overpaid for honest mistakes and then Centrelink will chase them for that money later.”

It is really important you understand the eligibility, seek assistance and information by calling the number above if you need it, and keep any evidence of your eligibility including evidence of your bank account statements to demonstrate you had lest than $10,000 in savings, evidence of your normal work hours and income and proof that you have lost this income, evidence you cannot work from home if you need it and evidence of your positive test/direction to isolate as a close contact etc. 

You might need to provide this evidence in the future if Centrelink ever investigate your eligibility for the payment.

What are my rights if my application is rejected?

If your Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment is rejected, you can contact the same number, 180 22 66 an discuss the reasons why you were refused. You will also be provided with information about your review rights in the letter Centrelink sends you then they inform you have been found ineligible for the payment.

If your NHE Crisis Payment application is rejected, you can contact 132 850 to ask for an explanation and request a review. It is important you do this within 13 weeks of receiving the refusal letter and make sure you very clearly indicate that you want a formal review of the decision. You will also be provided with information about your review rights in the letter Centrelink sends you then they inform you have been found ineligible for the payment.

How to get help from SSRV

SSRV can provide advice for people who have a Centrelink issue or Centrelink debt. Call our Legal Assistance Line on 03 9481 0355, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. If you can’t call us, you can email your request for assistance to

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