Case to access robodebt documents heads to AAT

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday June 18, 2021

in late 2019 information commissioner Angelene Falk ordered Services Australia to release the documents.
In late 2019 information commissioner Angelene Falk ordered Services Australia to release the documents. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

A legal battle to access early business plans and other documents relating to the federal government’s robodebt scheme will be heard by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal next week.

The documents in question were first requested by human rights advocate Justin Warren under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws in 2017, but were rejected by the then Department of Human Services (now Services Australia).

Warren challenged the decision through the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, and in late 2019 information commissioner Angelene Falk ordered Services Australia to release the documents.

But the agency is appealing against Falk’s decision, with the case to be played out before the AAT.

Warren is being represented by Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. They will argue the documents should be released.

“The robodebt program has caused severe financial stress and harm to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people,” principal lawyer Jennifer Kanis said.

“The documents at the centre of this case, if released, could give these people important answers about what the government knew, and when, about the risks of the failed and unlawful scheme.”


READ MORE: Senate: show us the robodebt legal advice


Prime Minister Scott Morrison was social services minister when the debt recovery program was devised, in 2016. Warren believes the documents could reveal more about what Morrison — and subsequent social services and human services ministers Christian Porter and Alan Tudge — knew when they oversaw the scheme. The documents could also reveal further information about how the scheme was designed and approved.

The AAT hearings, to be held from June 21 to 23, begin just 11 days after the Federal Court approved a class action settlement that will see the commonwealth pay a further $112 million in compensation to roughly 394,000 victims of the scheme.

The latest legal battle forms part of the Grata FOI Project, which aims to hold ministers and government departments accountable to FOI law.

“A functioning FOI system is crucial for a transparent and functioning democracy. Not only should these documents be released, but we need to have an independent, arms-length inquiry into what happened, and who knew what when,” Grata Fund founder and executive director Isabelle Reinecke said.


READ MORE: Robodebt failures ‘should have been obvious’ to senior public servants, judge finds


 

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