Are you having a problem with Centrelink?
Are you one of the 170,000 Australians who has received a debt recovery letter from Centrelink? Do you think it is a debt that you don't owe? While this is very stressful, the answer is not to ignore the letter and assume it is false. If you simply ignore the problem, the debt will be assumed to exist and your 'debt' will be passed on to a debt collector who will not be interested in discussing the original debt with you, only a payment plan.
First things first
You need to lodge an appeal, or apply for a review of the decision, with Centrelink. If you click on the button to the right it will take you to the Centrelink page that explains your options, which basically boil down to an internal review of the decision (that is someone within Centrelink will review your decision) or lodging an appeal with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Some newspaper reports are suggesting that Centrelink staff have simply been advised to block and refuse all internal reviews (such as this Get Up! article or this article from the ABC ). However, in order to properly make an appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal you should first apply for Centrelink to review your alleged debt. This failure to respond to your application for a review, or the application for review being made inaccessible (for instance by a website that doesn't work or by staff who refuse to process your review application) would be part of your complaint to the Ombudsman or the AAT.
There are a number of online articles stepping you through the initial process of lodging a complaint with Centrelink, like this article from the Sydney Morning Herald or this article from news.com.au
What is the Administrative Appeals Tribunal?
As stated on their website, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) conducts independent merits review of administrative decisions made under Commonwealth laws. They review decisions made by Australian Government ministers, departments and agencies and, in limited circumstances, decisions made by state government and non-government bodies.
The fact that they review based on merit, as opposed to reviewing whether or not the process was correct, is important. Many internal government reviews only look at whether the staff followed their processes, the AAT will look at whether the decision was right and fair in the first place. This would include both the original decision to treat you as owing a debt, and the subsequent handling of your application for a review. You should make the review within 13 weeks of Centrelink's decision.
If you have applied for a review of your decision within Centrelink and you are unhappy with their decision, then you should click on the first link above and to the left, titled Review of Centrelink Decision. This is a link to the AAT website explaining what you need to do, and includes a link to the 'Apply online' section.
If you have been unable to apply for a review (for instance you have sat on the phone for hours, only to be cut off, or the staff have refused to process your review) then you should click on the second button above and to the left titled General Division. This is also a link to the AAT website explaining what you need to do, and including a link to the 'Apply online' section.
What is the Commonwealth Ombudsman?
As stated on their website, the Commonwealth Ombudsman considers and investigates complaints from people who believe they have been treated unfairly or unreasonably by an Australian Government department / agency or prescribed private sector organisation, including Australia Post, Centrelink, Child Support (DHS), and Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
While the Ombudsman website currently contains a list of other organisations that you can contact about this Centrelink issue (click here to see the list) you can still contact the Ombudsman to complain about your decision. Again, you would need to have tried the internal review system and either be unhappy with the result, or have been unable to access the internal review system for some reason.
Do not do both things
It is important however that you do not do both things, that is lodge a review with the AAT and a complaint with the Ombudsman. The reason for this is the AAT will probably consider that to be an abuse of process. If you decide to lodge a complaint with the AAT you might put the Tribunal member off side, or even have your matter adjourned or thrown out because you have also lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman.
Which one should you choose then you might ask? Generally, people don't need legal advice to access the Ombudsman and generally, the Ombudsman is a more 'user friendly' service. If your debt is relatively small then it may not be worth getting legal advice, and the Ombudsman may be a better avenue for you. However, the Ombudsman has probably received a number of complaints about this particular issue, and whether or not they are the best avenue really depends on the nature of your individual circumstances.
The AAT is bound to review the entire decision on it's merits, and is more likely to undertake a more systematic review. While you can have legal representation at the Tribunal, you can also appear unrepresented (that is without a lawyer). The Tribunal is far more difficult to navigate than the Ombudsman though, driven by regulations and processes that you need to adhere to so you can be properly heard. The processes are helpful for those who understand them (like lawyers) because you understand ahead of time the types of evidence that the Tribunal will allow and how it must be presented, but the self represented person who doesn't understand the processes will find this difficult.
How can we help?
At Coode & Corry we are experienced in dealing with Tribunals generally and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal specifically, and we can give you a straight forward answer about the likely process and time involved and the likely costs. If you are being pursued by Centrelink for a substantial debt you should make an appointment to speak with one of our solicitors.