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Adelaide law students take robo-debt fight to Centrelink

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University of Adelaide law students are providing free legal advice to people fighting Centrelink debts at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, after budget cuts forced the Welfare Rights Centre to close down in June.

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Final year law students are volunteering their time as part of a recently formed legal clinic, which is run out of the AAT office on a Thursday.

Earlier this year, InDaily reported the Welfare Rights Centre would cease operations after negotiations with the State Government failed to provide funding assurance.

Adelaide Law School senior lecturer Margaret Castles said the centre’s closure left a hole in the free legal advice services provided to South Australians.

“We thought we’ve got to throw a lifeline to this service because it’s really important. So, over the mid-year break we set up a clinic in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal,” Castles said.

“We have a model for our clinics where we’re co-located at various places, like the Magistrate’s Court and Homeless Centre and Equal Opportunity Commission.”

Castles said students’ volunteer work counted towards their overall degree.

“It’s an elective subject that students do called clinical legal education,” she said.

Budding lawyer Alicia Cardone said the students’ advice helped appellants understand what is going on and prepare their argument.

“The process can be very overwhelming,” she said.

“A client is sent hundreds of pages of documentation and calculations by Centrelink which any normal person would find very hard to understand.

The assistance we provide gives them clarity in navigating their case.”

Under the supervision of the legal clinic’s managing solicitor Dr Ross Savvas, the law students use their expertise to decide what advice appellants receive.

Savvas formally provides appellants with the students’ advice.

One student is assigned to each case, with students working on cases relating to Newstart and Family Tax Benefit debts.

“Most of the cases would have been raised from about mid last year to April this year,” Savvas said.

“Quite a lot of them are as a result of the robo-debt … and quite often the clients are just not aware that they’ve even got the debt until Centrelink raises it with them.

“They (the clients) are advised that they can ask for a review. Once it’s been reviewed, if the debt still remains then they can appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which is where we come in.

“When someone lodges their appeal with the AAT they are given the option of independent legal advice.

“Prior to the administrative appeal hearing, the client is required by law to receive all of the documentation that Centrelink have in relation to that file. All of that goes to the client and a copy also goes to the Administrative Appeal Tribunal and then my students will also see a copy.”

Savvas said the size of the debts ranged from $450 to $20,000, some of which had accumulated since 2013.

He said while the size of the debt may not always seem large, it could still cause significant financial hardship and without access to the free legal clinics the cost of fighting the case might otherwise deter people from accessing legal advice.

He said that in his experience, a perception that people who have accrued debts are ripping off the system was not correct.

“It’s not unusual for us to hear the client say: ‘I’m not trying to rip off the system, I was reporting everything as I was required to report it.’ They are really quite agitated by it. They don’t understand how this has arisen and if you look at the paperwork that they get, it’s very complex paperwork.”

The robo-debt scheme has received criticism, in part, for placing the onus on the accused to disprove the alleged debt.

Last month, the Federal Court was told Centrelink had scrapped a $2754 debt at the centre of a second test case against the robo-debt scheme.

Victorian Legal Aid said a recalculation process found their client’s true overpayment was $1.48.

Savvas said he found the system “very disappointing”.

“It’s the way the system is structured and we have to deal within the system,” he said.

“Most people will tell you it’s not the right way of doing it and most lawyers are really quite opposed to this robo-debt system.”

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