The SSRV Annual Report for the 2020-2021 financial year was presented at our Annual General Meeting on 17 November 2021.
The 2020-21 financial year was one that saw all our lives continue to be disrupted in some ways by COVID-19
. This has been especially true for those receiving Centrelink payments, with new and changing types of payments, eligibility criteria and application processes, and changing mutual obligations requirements.
As a statewide community legal centre specialising in social security law, we have also been operating in an ever-changing landscape and have worked hard to provide clients with up-to-the-minute information and advice.
During 2020/2021 SSRV provided:
- 1359 advice services
- 261 referral services
- 183 information services
- 76 legal task (limited assistance) services
- 73 representation services
The enquiries we received were often complex and related to matters such as:
- debts/overpayments for a wide variety of payment types
- eligibility for the Disability Support Pension (DSP)
- family violence and its impact on payment eligibility and overpayments
- member of a couple and eligibility issues
- eligibility for payments for people on temporary visas
- COVID-19 supplements and other COVID-19 related social security measures, including the waiver of the assets test and the waiver of the Newly Arrived Residents Wait Period
- Robodebt related enquiries.
Worker Help Line
In the 2020/2021 year, our Worker Help Line (WHL) provided services to workers from 186 organisations across Victoria. Of these callers, 23 per cent were from workers in regional/rural Victoria. Thirty per cent of calls came from financial counsellors, 26 per cent from social/case workers, 15 per cent came from disability workers/advocates, 11 per cent came from legal workers, and the remainder from various other professions
More than a third of calls to the Worker Help Line were about clients receiving the DSP. The next most common payment type for clients of WHL callers was Job Seeker Payment.
Feedback from WHL callers is consistently very positive, with 100 per cent saying that the service was accessible and useful, and 95 per cent saying they felt more confident to deal with the issue after the call.
SSRV continued to provide legal advice and casework services in a targeted and tailored way throughout 2020/2021, with special project funding allowing us to respond to areas of identified demand and need, including:
- COVID-19 pandemic related social security legal issues
- Disability Support Pension (DSP) eligibility
- The intersection between family violence and social security legal issues
- Bushfire affected communities and individuals
- Cases where integrated service delivery was essential, with a particular focus on working closely on matters with financial counsellors.
SSRV staff see the intersection between family violence and social security most commonly for people who have left a relationship and are trying to re-start their lives. Financial need leads many victim survivors to rely upon social security as either their sole or primary source of income. But many people find out that they have substantial debts owing to Centrelink because their former partner either misled Centrelink, improperly estimated income or didn’t lodge a tax return.
In 2020/2021, SSRV provided 271 services where there was an indicator of family violence. Overpayments account for over 40 per cent of the problem types, with refusals/eligibility problems accounting for just over 25 per cent and problems about review of benefits making up 15 per cent.
By strategically selecting a variety of social security matters for ongoing representation or legal tasks, SSRV has been able to directly impact and test the effectiveness of different legal responses available to resolve an issue. SSRV is also often able to provide advice about how to seek a review of these debts for special circumstances waiver.
Integrated Services Project
The Integrated Services Project (ISP) is funded by the Victorian Department of Justice and Community Safety, with funding administered by the Federation of Community Legal Centres. Through this grant SSRV has been able to continue our partnership with Financial Counselling Victoria (FCVic) to bring together social security law experts and financial counsellors to work together to improve client outcomes.
During the year a community lawyer and financial counsellor worked together to provide direct client services, secondary consultation to other workers, education, resource development, engagement and policy activities. They championed and practiced integrated service delivery within SSRV and with financial counsellors across Victoria.
In 2020-2021 ISP staff provided 100 client services to 61 different clients.
DSP Help Project
In March 2020, SSRV began the second year of the Disability Support Pension Help Project. The DSP Help Project aims to help people living with illness, injury or disability access income support. Specifically, the project aims to create an online resource that helps applicants better understand and apply for the DSP.
In the second year of the project SSRV broadened its focus from applicants and support workers to include medical practitioners and other health professionals. DSP applications and appeals are largely decided on the quality of the supporting medical evidence. An aim of the project is to make it easier for the people giving that evidence to help their patients access the DSP.
DSP Help is about more than an online resource. The project is also providing a wraparound legal service where vulnerable DSP applicants can access advice and casework, and community legal education (CLE) to community and other support workers. In June 2021, in conjunction with Economic Justice Australia, the DSP Help Community Lawyer delivered a national CLE session to over 100 community lawyers and other support workers. The session covered DSP eligibility and the challenges applicants face when applying, and also the resources available to make this process easier. This session can be viewed here.
SSRV acknowledges the funding received from the Victorian Legal Services Board Grant Program for the DSP Help Project.
In 2020/2021 SSRV was also grateful to receive funding from the Victorian and Commonwealth governments for our work in responding to bushfires, COVID-19 and other disasters and planning for future events.
During the year, SSRV’s bushfire response work had a focus on two key activities: direct legal service delivery to individuals affected by the bushfires, and education and empowerment of those communities through community legal education and resources.
SSRV worked with services on the ground to best understand the legal needs of affected communities, and then deliver service to meet those needs.
A range of legal issues experienced by people in disaster affected communities were identified, ranging from housing and insurance, to property boundary disputes, to family violence matters, to accessing social security and other supports in a time of crisis.
The most directly relevant social security issue is accessing Disaster Recovery Allowance and Payment, about which SSRV developed fact sheets and made these available online. These fact sheets are also relevant for other disasters and can be rapidly deployed. So far, this has allowed us to deliver information for people affected by storms and floods in 2021.
Since the start of the pandemic, the economic, health and social impacts have been significant. The prolonged periods of lockdown and various restrictions have resulted in many individuals being unable to work and therefore forced to rely on social security more heavily than before or first the first time in their lives.
SSRV began to see matters where COVID-19 was a factor in problems being faced by SSRV clients. This included, for example, loss of employment due to lockdown restrictions, people being stranded overseas due to travel restrictions, lack of understanding about the changes to social security payment eligibility criteria such as the waiver of the assets test or waiver of the Newly Arrived Residents Wait Period.
Along with direct client services, activities undertaken by the Community Lawyer and other staff employed with the COVID-19 grant funds included:
Social Security Advocacy Clinic
In December 2020 SSRV launched the pilot of the Social Security Advocacy Clinic in partnership with Monash Law School. A second clinical period commenced in March 2021. The Clinic provides an opportunity to increase our overall capacity to delivery legal services to the community and for SSRV staff to work with and teach enthusiastic and talented students.
The Clinic has had an energising and positive impact on SSRV and has established a successful remote clinical model that can continue to be developed and utilised in years to come.
The reach and impact of the work of SSRV during this remarkable year far exceeds what we have highlighted in this snapshot. You can read more about our important service, as well as read stories from the people we have helped, in our 2020-21 Annual Report.