Change is coming… The new Administrative Review Tribunal 

For many, the current system of appealing a Centrelink decision to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal can be intimidating and stressful. New reforms are aimed at changing that. 

Over the last financial year, Centrelink made decisions about the social security and family assistance entitlements of millions of Australians. For the many Australians engaging with the social security system at a vulnerable time in their lives, accessing their full entitlements can be the difference between entering homelessness or not or leaving a family violence relationship or not. 

Nearly all Centrelink decisions on social security and family assistance entitlements can be appealed and for all of them, the appeal process is the same. The most appealed decisions include rejection of a claim for payment, cancellation of a payment, and Centrelink debts. 

Appealing a Centrelink decision is free, and begins with requesting an internal review by Centrelink, which is also known as an Authorised Review Officer review. If this is unsuccessful, you can apply for an external review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). Time limits apply and vary according to the type of decision being reviewed. 

The AAT has jurisdiction to review decisions made under 400 Commonwealth Acts and legislative instruments. These include migration and refugee, taxation, NDIS, Freedom of Information, and passports. In 2022 – 2023, social security and family assistance law decisions were the second most common decisions appealed to the AAT, and in 26 per cent of these cases, the AAT varied the decision made by Centrelink.  

This highlights how the appeal process, and particularly an external review, is critical to accurate decision making, the effective administration of the social security system, and protecting the rights of vulnerable community members. However, many of our clients find the external review process through the AAT to be overwhelming, confusing, intimidating and highly stressful, especially if they don’t have assistance from an advocate or legal representative. 

In October 2021, the Commonwealth Senate established an inquiry into the performance and integrity of Australia’s administrative review system. The review highlighted concerns about the current operation and function of the AAT. Of particular importance to the inquiry was the issue of public confidence in the AAT’s decision making.  

The inquiry’s report stated that “[the AAT] has not been functioning in the fair, just, economical, informal and quick way that the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975 provides it should.” 

It found that “review after review has outlined how the AAT needs to enact significant reforms to its functions and processes, and importantly to its member selection processes, to no avail. Something is fundamentally broken in the way the AAT currently operates.” 

The review ultimately recommended the AAT be disassembled and a new merits review system be developed to achieve the goals. 

The Commonwealth Government has now adopted this recommendation and announced the AAT will be abolished and a new Administrative Review Tribunal (ART) established. The ART is still in development with the exact model yet to be finalised. As such, there is currently no timeline for when it will commence, and the AAT continues to operate.  

Until then, if you need to appeal a Centrelink decision, you can still lodge a review request with the AAT. If the matter has not been reviewed by the AAT at the time the ART commences it will automatically transfer across to the new Tribunal system. 

Here at SSRV, we welcome reforms to the external review system that enhance access to justice for our most vulnerable community members. Social security and family assistance law is inherently technical and complex.  

We also believe that increasing access to independent and specialist legal advice forms a key part of any reform to ensure the objectives of the review are achieved and we have an administrative review system that operates as intended. 

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