Centrelink rule for couples poses risk for women experiencing domestic violence

By Shannon Jenkins

July 22, 2019

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Centrelink’s couple rule exposes victims of domestic violence to their perpetrator and can “entrap” women in violent relationships, according to a new report from Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS).

The couple rule is used to determine whether a person should be considered a member of a couple for social security purposes.

ANROWS — an independent research organisation put in place governments to guide policy and practice to address violence against women and their children  — looked at the experiences of women who appealed Centrelink decisions about the couple rule, in cases where domestic violence was involved.

Their recent report examined 70 Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) decisions that involved domestic violence and the couple rule from 1992 to 2016, with the aim of finding the dynamic between domestic violence, social security payments and the couple rule.

Data that could be used to identify and locate women was publicly available in the AAT decisions, ANROWS found, exposing those who have experienced domestic violence to their perpetrator and preventing them from “keeping a difficult period of their lives private”.

Furthermore, domestic violence records have been used as evidence of a relationship in AAT couple rule decisions which has “created scope for systems abuse of women”.

“Perpetrators attempt to regain control after separation through litigious or legally manipulative behaviour, such as using the administrative system through Centrelink,” ANROWS said.

The research found the current system fails to recognise long-term experiences and implications of domestic violence, such as economic abuse. For example, ANROWS argued that women often make several attempts to escape a violent relationship.

“During this process, some women have fallen foul of the couple rule and have been ordered to repay substantial social security debts or have been prosecuted for fraud. Such rulings create an additional burden at this vulnerable time for women and can effectively entrap them in the violent relationship, and/or punishes them for leaving,” ANROWS said.

“The couple rule renders women’s access to social security payment dependent on the assets and income of the perpetrator. This creates particularly risky dynamics across intersectional groups for women to access financial support during this difficult time.”

The report made several policy and practice recommendations to help alleviate these issues:

  • Individuals should be de-identified in public AAT reports, especially in those related to domestic violence. New reports should omit sensitive material before decisions are made public, and existing reports should be edited. 
  • Stronger guidelines should be developed for the Commonwealth’s use of information collected by state institutions, such as police and hospitals, “to enhance women’s safety”.
  • There must be recognition in decision-making at the AAT and within Centrelink of how long-term experiences of domestic violence and economic abuse can impact upon women in terms of income and assets reporting to Centrelink.
  • All Centrelink and AAT decision-makers should be required to complete domestic violence training.
  • Once domestic violence is identified, systems abuse must be considered in decision-making. Protections should also be put in place to protect the victim/survivor. Centrelink and the AAT need to ensure safe and effective early identification, case management and subsequent treatment of cases involving domestic violence in accordance with current understandings of domestic violence as coercive and controlling behaviour encompassing economic and financial abuse. The apparent decrease in AAT couple rule decisions that involve domestic violence in recent years might indicate that this is occurring.
  • When applying the couple rule, there should be special consideration for women who experience multiple forms of disadvantage. For example, the vulnerable position of immigrant women with various visa statuses who have experienced domestic and family violence and wish to access social security income support, also needs to be taken into account in decision-making, with additional protection provided. Centrelink should ensure that safe and effective (trauma specialist) interpreter services are provided in screening and case management.
  • Research is needed to explore the individual rather than the couple as the basis of eligibility for all social security payments, negating the need for the couple rule and mitigating the particular vulnerability of women who experience domestic violence to this rule.
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