Department of Social Services loses appeal over $27,000 Centrelink debt

By Matthew Elmas

Friday January 15, 2021

Services Australia
(AAP Image/April Fonti)

The Department of Social Services has lost an effort to recoup $27,000 in Centrelink debts from the mother of a child with special needs, ending a two-year legal battle.

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) has upheld a 2019 decision that an administrative error on the part of Centrelink provider Services Australia had placed Cassandra Clark under ‘additional strain’ and affected her mental health.

The case began when the mother challenged a $27,000 Centrelink debt in 2018, related to alleged over payments between 2013 and 2018. In 2019 the AAT found the over payments were due to Services Australia’s mistakes, having overlooked the mother’s partner’s income as a sole trader.

The AAT found Clark had received the payments in good faith and made no attempt to act dishonestly or deceptively ‘at any stage’.

The Department of Social Services appealed the 2019 decision last year in an attempt to recoup the funds, but in a judgement published earlier this week AAT senior member Chris Puplick sided with the mother, waiving the entire debt.

Puplick said the department’s administrative error ‘passes muster’ as ‘unintended’, but was probably also ‘unfair and unjust’ in its impact on Clark.

However, Puplick found the error was not solely the fault of the department, finding Clark also failed to respond to queries about her circumstances.

Nevertheless, the AAT held that Clark, the mother of a child with autism, fit the bill for special circumstances, and decided to waive the debt.

“What is of course ‘special’, although not necessarily ‘unique’, is that there has been a degree of administrative error by the department and the tribunal accepts that this has contributed to placing the respondent under additional strain and further impacting on her mental health because she has had to deal with the consequences of such an error,” Puplick said.

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