Spring is here, the waves of COVID-19 are retreating, and lockdowns for Melbourne and regional Victoria are slowly being rolled back. Centrelink’s pause on debt recovery and suspension of mutual obligations requirements appears to be continuing in Victoria too. Despite these good things, we have heard the news that mutual obligation requirements are soon being re-instated. We are preparing for the eventual wave of new enquiries concerning debts and eligibility for Centrelink benefits when the Centrelink pause is removed. We will be watching keenly to see what happens in the rest of Australia. The Integrated Services Project is here and ready to support financial counsellors with these queries.
The partnership between FCVic and Social Security Rights Victoria (SSRV), the Integrated Services Project (ISP) aims to improve client outcomes through financial counsellors and social security lawyers working together more effectively.
Our recent CPD series concerning Centrelink debts and how to appeal them has finished, and we thank each attendee for making them a success. We loved having you there. We give special thanks to Tanja at FCVic for supporting and moderating the sessions.
We’re putting together a new series of CPD units – watch this space and keep an eye on the FCVic events calendar.
Integrated Practice Case Study
Despite Centrelink pausing their debt recovery and suspending mutual obligations requirements, we’ve been very busy with casework – like in Sarah’s* matter where we worked with Megan* – a financial counsellor, to assist in understanding the documents provided to Sarah under Freedom of Information legislation.
Sarah* is a woman who has received the Disability Support Pension (DSP) for several years. Sarah has always tried as hard as she can to support herself and has picked up casual work from time to time to supplement her DSP. Despite the work being short contracts, some of the work paid rather well, and she sometimes earned over $3000 in a fortnight.
Sarah struggles with understanding maths and numbers, so when she reported her earnings to Centrelink, she was not accurate in giving these reports, often reported earnings in round numbers (eg $300), and often under-reported her income. Centrelink warned Sarah several times to be sure that she was reporting her earnings correctly.
Following an investigation by Centrelink into Sarah’s earnings over the last ten years, Centrelink found that Sarah was overpaid by about $85 000, and began deducting money from her DSP to pay down the debt.
With some help from family, Sarah obtained documents from Centrelink using Freedom of Information laws, but neither Sarah nor her family could understand the formatting of Centrelink’s documents, and found wading through hundreds of pages of information to be overwhelming. Sarah’s family hoped that they could find a way to have the debt reduced or waived completely.
Sarah and her family turned to her financial counsellor Megan* for assistance.
On seeing the complexity of the matter and number of documents, Megan contacted the Integrated Services Project (ISP) at Social Security Rights Victoria (SSRV) for assistance to sort through the information, and to see if there was an avenue of appeal to reduce the size of Sarah’s debt.
Karl at the ISP analysed the documents and checked Centrelink’s processing of Sarah’s finances.
Unfortunately for Sarah, Centrelink had processed the earnings information correctly, so Karl checked the documents for any grounds on which Sarah could use to apply for a waiver or write-off. Again, short of personal insolvency, it was confirmed that Sarah did not have grounds to be free of the debt.
With this advice to hand, Megan assisted Sarah to have her repayment deductions adjusted to a more manageable level, and to fully understand her obligations moving forward.
Reflecting on the experience, Megan says “I really appreciate SSRV’s assistance with this matter. I will pass on the email to my client and her parents. I suppose they can now relax knowing that they have not been ripped off by Centrelink.”
While the answer wasn’t what Sarah, her family, or Megan hoped for, Megan was able to work closely with SSRV to provide better certainty as to Sarah’s rights, and the prospects of fighting the debt.
Financial counsellors are invited to call the SSRV Worker Help Line (0429 450 346*/ 03 9481 0655 – 9.00am-5.00pm, Monday – Thursday) for information and support in assisting clients with Centrelink matters and to make referrals to SSRV.
Individuals can be referred the SSRV General Advice Line (0419 793 652*/ 03 9481 0355), which is operating between 9.30am -12.30pm, Monday to Thursday).
These are the primary pathways for intake and assessment for further legal casework and representation services.
*Direct mobile phone numbers to telephone advice services while SSRV delivers services remotely during the COVID-19 response period. Calls to the usual numbers will be diverted to these mobile numbers.