What is Robodebt?

Last month, Gordon Legal launched a class action against the Government over their handling of Centrelink’s automated debt system, commonly known as ‘Robodebt’. Emily Wind explains what Robodebt is, and what action to take if you are faced with a fine you believe is unjust.

What is Robodebt?

In 2016, the Government began using a computer algorithm to identify Centrelink overpayments (or debt) by matching fortnightly Centrelink reporting to annual income from the Australian Taxation Office.

In the past, the process was conducted by a Centrelink officer who would do a basic investigation before deciding to send out a letter. Under this previous system, about 20,000 interventions were made a year. As of 2017 with the new automated system, this number was up to about 20,000 interventions a week.

Centrelink has also been seizing tax returns to pay back robodebts. The Department of Human Services confirmed it recovered $63.4 million in 2018-19 by reclaiming tax refunds. This is a dramatic rise from the $37.7 million recovered in 2016-17.

Why is it a big deal?

The use of a computer algorithm has allowed for countless debts to be issued that are inaccurate or false.

As of March this year, more than 77,500 robodebts have been reduced, waived or written off. This number doesn’t account for all inaccurate or false debts– only the debts which people chose to appeal.

The actual number of inaccurate or false debts is likely much higher, with Greens Senator Rachel Siewert telling Hack that “the numbers of people who have gone through the appeals process are relatively low, and I have strong concerns about that.”

In February, the Department of Human Services released data stating that over 2000 people died after receiving a Centrelink debt notice. 663 of these people were classified as “vulnerable”, meaning they may have been suffering from mental illness, drug use, or were domestic violence victims. There have tragically been numerous cases of people dying from suicide after being chased by debt collectors.

In August, former Centrelink employees revealed that they were “publicly ranked against each other on staffroom whiteboards according to how many debts they raised.” This pressure led to rule-bending regarding contacting customers before debts were raised.

Image via 9news. Whiteboard depicts names of staff members alongside figures showing the number of debts raised by them and how long it took them to do it.

This debt recovery system is clearly broken and in serious need of reform. If the number of false and inaccurate debts didn’t prove this, the effect the process is having on at-risk individuals is already enough to warrant an investigation.

Should I be worried?

If you’re receiving a Centrelink benefit, it’s in your best interest to research this issue further and educate yourself on any potential issues that could arise. A good place to start is checking whether you’re reporting your income correctly. If you receive any form of income whilst receiving a benefit, you must report it. If you’re a casual worker and receive $0 in a fortnight, that $0 still needs to be reported. Make sure you retain copies of your bank statements, payslips, proof of reporting income, and other similar documents so you’re prepared in a worst-case-scenario situation. You could also keep a record of all interactions with Centrelink to be on the safe side.

I’ve been issued a fine, now what?

If you’ve been issued a fine by Centrelink, and the amount owed seems too high or completely unwarranted, the first step is to not panic – there is action you can take to have the debt reviewed.

Step One: Formal Review

The first step is to launch a formal review through Centrelink itself.  You can request a review of your debt over the phone, in-person or through MyGov. The review will be conducted by an authorised review officer (ARO). There is no time limit to launching an appeal, and the process is free (although repayments may still need to be paid during the review process). Make sure you retain some sort of proof that the appeal has been lodged.

You can also call Centrelink Compliance on 1800 086 400 to check that your review has been processed and request a copy of your ADEX schedule– request a printed copy, not a verbal one across the phone. This document is a spreadsheet setting out the calculations used to arrive at your debt figure.

Step Two: Administrative Appeals Tribunal

If you aren’t satisfied with the outcome of the Centrelink review, you can ask the AAT to conduct another review. This process should be free unless you get a lawyer involved. The review goes through the Social Services and Child Support Division, and if you’re unhappy with the result you can request another review through the AAT’s general division.

The #NotMyDebt website has useful links to legal and welfare rights organisations you can reach out to for further support and guidance if need be.

(Possible) Step Three: Class Action

If you were issued an inaccurate or false debt, you may wish to get involved in the Gordon Legal class action. You can learn more about it and register your interest here.


Feature Image: via SBS, no changes made.

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