Robodebt Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

24/03/2020

What is a Robodebt?

Robodebts are specific types of Centrelink debts which Gordon Legal believe are unlawful.

Robodebts are created by a Centrelink debt calculation system which relies on averaging out a Centrelink recipient’s annual ATO income data evenly across the fortnightly periods in which that recipient received Centrelink payments. 

Robodebts are wrong because a recipient’s entitlement to Centrelink payments is based on the amounts they actually earned at the time of receiving the payments – not the averaged ATO amounts. Therefore, Robodebts are based on a faulty calculation.

Robodebts are generally raised after Centrelink requests that a recipient or former recipient of Centrelink payments check, update or confirm their past income information. If a recipient does not respond to that request by providing evidence of their earnings in the form of payslips or bank statements, Centrelink applies the averaging system. In some circumstances, even where the recipient does not provide evidence of their earnings, Centrelink may still apply the averaging system, such as where the payslips or bank statements provided are incomplete.

In our view, for the purposes of establishing that Centrelink is claiming the amounts unlawfully, it doesn’t matter whether Centrelink used the ATO data to come up with an ‘average’ for some or all of the period their claim for overpayment relates to.

What is the Robodebt Class Action?

We were instructed to launch the Robodebt Class Action because there are a significant number of people who have been unfairly treated because of the Robodebt system. The Robodebt Class Action is a vehicle to help these people by pursuing compensation for their losses, including the money that they paid out towards Robodebts and the distress and inconvenience that they experienced along the way.

From a legal perspective, the Robodebt Class Action argues that the Commonwealth has been unjustly enriched because of Centrelink’s operation of the Robodebt system. In November 2019, the Federal Court of Australia made orders which said that the Robodebt system was unlawful in relation to Ms Deanna Amato, who brought a claim against the Commonwealth with the assistance of Victoria Legal Aid. Whilst this decision was important, it only applied to Ms Amato – Centrelink have yet to acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of other debts they have raised through the Robodebt system were also unlawful. The Robodebt Class Action is designed to assist the whole class of people who have been affected.

Because this proceeding is a class action, it is brought by a group of Representative Applicants on behalf of all of the other people affected. This means that Group Members do not need to take an active role in the proceedings. However, if a successful outcome is reached and an order of compensation is made, all of the Group Members are entitled to share in the benefit.

Does registering my interest with Gordon Legal mean I can benefit from the Robodebt Class Action?

Registering your interest with the Robodebt Class Action does not necessarily make you a Group Member who can be involved in the proceedings. To be a Group Member, you must meet the 3-point definition which is set out in the next question.

In fact, anyone who meets this definition – even if they do not know about the class action – is a Group Member and is entitled to benefit from the proceedings.

Who is a member of the Robodebt Class Action?

You are a group member if :

  1. You were in receipt of one of the following Social Security payments:
  • Newstart Allowance;
  • Youth Allowance;
  • Disability Support Pension;
  • Austudy Allowance;
  • Age Pension;
  • Carer Allowance;
  • Parenting Payment;
  • Partner Allowance;
  • Sickness Allowance;
  • Special Benefit;
  • Widow A Allowance; and
  • Widow B Pension.

AND

  1. If at any time after 1 July 2015:

(i)   You received or were sent Centrelink correspondence or notification which requested that you check, confirm or update employment income information; and

(ii)  Following this, Centrelink asserted that you owed a debt and demanded repayment of the debt; and

(iii) That debt was calculated, all or in part, by Centrelink averaging out your ATO annual income data across the fortnights in which you received social security payments and treating those amounts as your earnings during those fortnights

AND

  1. You have paid, or had recovered from you, any debt or part thereof (including through a payment plan, garnishing of tax return or payment of the debt in full).

If you fit the definition of a group member set out above, you do not need to do anything further at this stage to become a group member.

I don’t know if I meet the definition of a Group Member, how do I find out?

The best way to find out whether you are a Group Member is to make a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for your Centrelink file. The documents included in your file should show how Centrelink calculated your debt, or in other words, whether your debt is a Robodebt. If you have previously made an FOI request for your Centrelink file, we would like to see the documents released to you – please email them to us at robodebt@gordonlegal.com.au

Please follow these instructions to make the FOI request to Centrelink.

You need these two forms to make an FOI request to Centrelink:

Link to Centrelink FOI Form

Link to Attachment A

  1. Download the ‘Centrelink FOI form’ (see link above) and fill in:
  • Question 2 (your name)
  • Question 3 (your date of birth)
  • Question 5 or 6 (your address or email address)
  • Question 21 (your Centrelink Reference Number)
  • Question 32 (signature and date).
  1. Please also check that all your personal details are correct.
  2. Download the ‘Attachment A’ (see link above). You do not need to make any changes to this document.
  3. Create a new email addressed to: freedomofinformation@servicesaustralia.gov.au and attach both the completed ‘Centrelink FOI form’ and ‘Attachment A’.
  4. If you are not able to email the forms to the above address, you can send the completed hard copy forms to the following address:

Department of Human Services

PO Box 7820

Canberra BC ACT 2610

Once you send the FOI request, Centrelink has 30 days to provide you with your documents. When you get your response from Centrelink, please forward the documents you receive to Gordon Legal at robodebt@gordonlegal.com.au

Is there a deadline for registering with the Robodebt Class Action?

At present, registrations are still open for the Robodebt Class Action. However, at some point the Court may make orders to close the class so that the matter can be finalised. After that, no new registrations can be accepted.

This means that it is a good idea to sign up as soon as you can to make sure that you receive ongoing information about the progress of the Robodebt Class Action.

What kind of compensation is being sought through the Robodebt Class Action?

As it stands, the Representative Applicants are seeking:

  • Re-payment of the money paid towards unlawful debts;
  • Compensation for the loss of use of the money they have paid to the Commonwealth or that has been taken from them;
  • Compensation for inconvenience and distress;
  • Interest; and
  • Legal costs

We will provide further details about this as the case progresses.

Centrelink have asked me to provide them with documents, should I provide them?

If you have not received social security payments from Centrelink for more than 14 weeks, there is no obligation on you to provide Centrelink with ongoing or additional information. This applies even if Centrelink writes or calls you to you to ask you to check and update your information or to help them to reassess a past decision to raise a debt against you.

The onus is on Centrelink to prove that a debt exists – you don’t have to help them prove a debt against you.

Providing Centrelink with further documents and/or information may not advance your position and could be of detriment to you.

If you do provide documents and/or information there could be a number of outcomes:

  • Your debt amount could increase
  • Your debt amount may not change
  • Centrelink may reduce your debt amount
  • Centrelink may waive your debt

If you don’t provide further documents and/or information there could be a number of outcomes:

  • Centrelink may conduct a review without that information
  • Centrelink may take no further action
  • Centrelink may further investigate your history of payments to determine whether there are other amounts due to it from you

If you are currently claiming benefits, or have done so in the last 14 weeks, you are likely to be under an obligation to provide Centrelink with the documents they have requested. If you fall within this category and you don’t provide Centrelink with the documents it has requested, Centrelink may take further action against you, including stopping your benefit payment. If you fall within this category, you should seek legal advice.

My Centrelink debt relates to Child Support Allowance, Family Tax Benefit or Farm Household Allowance, can I join the Robodebt Class Action?

If your Centrelink debt relates to one of these payments, unfortunately this means you do not fall within the scope of the Robodebt Class Action. This is because the Robodebt system was not applied to these payments.

Unfortunately we have limited resources and are currently doing our best to recover money which has been paid to the government unlawfully under the Robodebt System.

For further assistance, you can contact Social Security Rights Victoria (SSRV), or the equivalent organisation in your state or territory.

SSRV is an independent state-wide community legal centre that specialises in social security and related law and policy. SSRV’s contact details are as follows:

  • Opening hours: 9am-5pm Monday to Thursday.
  • Websitehttp://www.ssrv.org.au/
  • Email: info@ssrv.org.au
  • General Advice Line: 03 9481 0355 or 1800 094 164 (rural callers) on Mondays and Wednesdays 9.30am to 12.30pm
  • Worker Help Line: (03) 9481 0655 on Monday-Thursday 9.00am-5.00pm
  • Administration/General Inquiries: (03) 9481 0299 on Monday-Thursday 9.00am-5.00pm

If you are based outside Victoria, please refer to the National Social Security Rights Network webpage to locate your nearest social security rights legal centre: http://www.nssrn.org.au/services/

A debt notice was sent to me before 1 July 2015, can I still join the Robodebt Class Action?

To be a Group Member, you must have been issued with a debt notice by Centrelink after 1 July 2015. This is because the averaging system used to calculate debts, which we allege to be unlawful, was only used by Centrelink after this date.

If Centrelink have issued you with multiple debt notices, with one or more raised before 1 July 2015, and one or more raised after 1 July 2015, only the debt notices that were issued after 1 July 2015 will fall within the scope of the Robodebt Class Action.

I have not paid off any of the debt, can I still join the Robodebt Class Action?

To be a Group Member you must have paid back all, or part of the debt, or had some of the debt amount taken from you, for example by having your tax return refund taken, or money taken from your wages or social security payments.

If you have not paid back any of the debt, unfortunately this means you do not fall within the scope of the Robodebt Class Action.

If you do pay back some of the debt at a later date, please let us know, as you may then fall within the scope of the Robodebt Class Action.

Should I make a payment towards the alleged debt?

This is a decision that needs to be made based on your personal circumstances. There are number of factors that could determine the best approach for you.

If you have not made any payment or do not have any payment arrangement in place, there are a number of steps Centrelink may take, including:

  • referring the debt to a debt collection agency;
  • add interest to any money they allege you owe;
  • seek to take money from your tax refund or from your wages, earnings or bank account;
  • reduce your current Centrelink debt repayments;
  • prevent you from travelling overseas; and/or
  • take legal action to recover the alleged debt.

Making a payment, or entering into a payment plan, may mean that Centrelink will not take any of these steps. Not only that, if you otherwise meet the definition of a Group Member, making a payment will make you eligible to join the Robodebt Class Action.

Do I need to continue making payments towards my debt now that I have registered with the Robodebt Class Action?

Registering your interest in the Robodebt Class Action does not mean that Centrelink will not pursue you for repayments of your debt. If you tell Centrelink that you are a part of the Robodebt Class Action, they will not pause your debt. If you do not make the repayments that you have agreed to make, Centrelink could take action against you, such as referring your debt to a debt collection agency.

We understand that Centrelink has decided to review many of the debts it raised under the Robodebt system and has paused recovery of the debts whilst they are under review. It may therefore be worthwhile for you to call Centrelink’s compliance division on 1800 086 400 to check the status of your debt and ask that it be put on hold.

Centrelink are deducting money from my benefit payments, how can I stop this?

If your personal circumstances mean that you are struggling to make ends meet with reduced payments, you can ask Centrelink to reduce or freeze your debt repayments by calling Centrelink’s repayment division on 1800 076 072. They may not agree to do so, but you can ask.

You also have the right to seek a review of the decision to deduct money from your benefit payments.

I had my repayments frozen but Centrelink have now started deducting money from my benefits, can they do this?

As we understand it, Centrelink Officers can only freeze debt repayments for 3 months.

After 3 months, you have to call Centrelink’s repayment division on 1800 076 072 and ask for the payments to be frozen for a further 3 months.

Centrelink have suggested that I seek an internal review, should I agree?

As we understand it, there is no time limit on asking for a review of Centrelink's decision that you owe a debt.

Even if you have paid off the debt, you can still ask for a review. If, as a result of the review, a debt is cancelled or reduced, Centrelink may refund money to you. Centrelink should also waive any penalty fee if your debt is cancelled or reduced following a review that leads to a debt being cancelled.

This means that it is possible to wait and seek a review after the Court has made a decision in the Robodebt Class Action.

If you receive a call or letter from Centrelink suggesting that you engage in an internal review process, we want to hear from you. We recommend that you make detailed notes of your conversation with Centrelink, including the date, time, what was said and the name of the person you spoke to. Please email us at robodebt@gordonlegal.com.au and we will get back to you within 5-10 business days.

It is important that you understand that you are not obliged to engage in an internal review or provide Centrelink with any further information if you have not been on benefits for more than 14 weeks.

I appealed my debt to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, can I still be a part of the Robodebt Class Action?

If the AAT heard an appeal of your debt, there is no reason why you cannot be a part of the Robodebt Class Action so long as you fit within the definition of a Group Member.

However, we have seen several cases where the AAT deals with Robodebts by setting aside decisions to raise debts that are based solely on the averaging system and asking Centrelink to recalculate them based on actual earnings data. If this is what happened to you when you appealed to the AAT, this calculation may mean you are not eligible to be a Group Member. We recommend that you register your interest with Gordon Legal in any case.

My debt has been waived, can I still join the Robodebt Class Action and claim compensation for inconvenience and distress?

If your debt has been waived and any payments made towards the debt have been refunded to you, you may still fall within the scope of the Robodebt Class Action. This will be determined at a later date when we know more about the Commonwealth’s responses. We recommend that you register your interest with Gordon Legal as you may be entitled to compensation for the loss of the use of the money that you paid towards the debt, as well as for distress and inconvenience.

How much will it cost me to become part of the Robodebt Class Action?

If you fit within the definition of a Group Member, you are automatically a part of the Robodebt Class Action unless you opt out of the proceedings at some later date (see: Can I withdraw from the Robodebt Class Action?).

It does not cost you anything to register with Gordon Legal.

If there is a successful outcome, the Court may make an order that Group Members make a contribution to the legal costs incurred by the Representative Applicants, which are not recovered from the Commonwealth. If the Court makes such an order, it will only do so if it is satisfied that any costs you are asked to pay are fair, reasonable and proportionate. The Court will not order that a Group Member contribute to legal costs unless they receive the benefit of any settlement or judgement in the Robodebt Class Action.

Until a successful outcome is achieved, all costs will be covered by Gordon Legal. If the Robodebt Class Action is not successful, it won’t cost you anything.

Can I withdraw from the Robodebt Class Action?

Yes, the choice is yours. If you let us know that you don’t want to be part of the Robodebt Class Action we will remove you from our mailing list so that you no longer receive any correspondence from us about the proceedings, you must wait for the Court to set the date at which Group Members can “opt-out” and then tell the Court that you do not wish to proceed. You will be notified at that time.