Australia: The Aussies taking on Centrelink in court on behalf of thousands - - PressFrom - Australia
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Australia The Aussies taking on Centrelink in court on behalf of thousands

03:46  23 november  2019
03:46  23 november  2019 Source:   9news.com.au

Government backs down on robodebt averaging system

  Government backs down on robodebt averaging system The Federal Government has announced a major backdown in relation to a key component of its debt-raising scheme, known as robodebt.The Department of Human Services will no longer use its controversial averaging system as the sole means of raising a debt, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert announced today.

Bill Shorten launches challenge after Coalition’s ‘very late admission there is something rotten at the core of robodebt’.

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  The Aussies taking on Centrelink in court on behalf of thousands © AAP Image/Julian Smith A high school teacher, a nurse and a call centre worker are among the ordinary Australians squaring up to take on the Federal Government in court.

This week, law firm Gordon Legal announced it had launched its class action in the Federal Court over the government's bungled debt recovery system - known as robodebt.

Lawyers will use the cases of five lead plaintiffs to represent the 4000 potential robodebt victims who have come forward to take part in the class action.

Nine.com.au and A Current Affair have spoken to four of the lead plaintiffs about the 'David vs Goliath' task ahead.

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To use your online account, sign in to myGov and select Centrelink . We support most internet browsers and assistive technologies. Get the latest version of the Express Plus Centrelink mobile app now. You’ll see a new look home screen and updated features.

Centrelink will now seek more information, such as payslips, before claiming welfare recipients owe a debt. Then on Tuesday, just two weeks before Amato’s case is due to be heard in the federal court , the The statement of claim reveals the case will be fought on behalf of people like a former youth

Gordon Legal will argue that robodebt is illegal and based on a flawed averaging system. The law firm estimates the government could have gotten as many as 220,000 debts wrong and owe as much as $600 million.

The lawsuit demands any incorrect debts be repaid, along with interest charged, as well as compensation.

"There are thousands of people who have lost accommodation, lost jobs, suffered from mental health issues," Gordon Legal senior partner Peter Gordon said.

Lodgement of the class action came a day after the government announced it would be making major changes to the way it raises welfare debts.

In what was seen as a significant backflip, the government said it will no longer issue debts solely based on averaged income data from the tax office. Other "proof points", such as payslips, would now need to be used.

Fraudster jailed for claiming $110,000 Centrelink payments while running multi-million-dollar business

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Centrelink ’s robodebt scheme has faced mounting concerns from both experts and the general public, and will now face a fresh challenge: a class Former Labor leader Bill Shorten has released an official statement announcing that Gordon Legal, who took on the likes of big Tobacco and Thalidomide, will

I asked Centrelink to prove the debt in a court of law. They were unwilling and told me to provide bank statements. Historical bank statements are expensive – Beyond shameful and Scotty better not claim that he is doing it on behalf of tax-payers; most people are decent and don't want other people

Those whose debts had already been calculated in such a manner would have their cases reviewed.

In an email sent to class action participants, Gordon Legal said the latest move by Centrelink was an acknowledgement that "averages calculated from annual ATO data are not a substitute for calculating actual fortnightly earnings" and "the onus should be on Centrelink to establish that a debt is owed".

So, who exactly are the Australians whose cases will become the cornerstone of Gordon Legal's mammoth court battle with Centrelink?

ELLA*, 29, ADMINISTRATION ASSISTANT, VICTORIA

HER CASE

Ella was trying to buy flights after her dad had a heart attack this year when she found out her $1000 tax return had vanished.

"It was a really terrible time. My dad needed emergency surgery," she said.

"I was planning to use that money to fly up to Sydney and help my dad as he got out of hospital. I bought the flights and put them on my credit card with the intention of using my tax return to pay it off. And then my tax return never showed up."

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"I didn't get notified of how or why it had been taken. It just didn't show up."

Ella, who has not received welfare payments in seven years, said she then called Centrelink and found out about the debt

Ella said she did not believe the debt was correct.

"I definitely didn't think it was right because I always reported my earnings to the best of my ability. It just didn't seem right that I could possibly owe this much money," she said.

WHY SHE IS DOING IT

While Ella said being one of the lead plaintiffs in the case was "quite daunting" she was happy she could help fight for people more vulnerable than herself who had also been given robodebts.

"It would certainly be just easier to stay in the background and hope it goes away but I guess I feel obligated to stand up for other people that might not be in the position to engage in the class action," she said.

Ella said her experience of getting a robodebt had completely eroded her trust in the government.

"I find it so incredible that anybody has thought that is an OK system.

"I work in business sending out invoices for customers and I feel like if my business just started sending out invoices that they didn't know if they were correct or not … no business would ever do that. I just can't believe that the government is essentially doing that."

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Most hospitals do not frequently take patients to court over medical debt. But since 2015, Carlsbad Medical Center, in New Mexico, has filed lawsuits by the thousands . An examination of court records by The New York Times found almost 3,000 lawsuits filed by Carlsbad Medical Center against

A Centrelink office in Sydney. Unionised Centrelink staff have written an open letter to welfare recipients acknowledging the debt retrieval system is unfair. The union says its members will be handing out the letter on behalf of staff at a small number of Centrelink offices around the country.

FELICITY, 31, VICTORIAN MOTHER-OF-TWO AND NURSE

HER CASE

Felicity was about to take her sick one-year-old daughter to the doctor in 2017 when $11,200 was suddenly withdrawn from her bank account by debt collectors ARL, formerly known as Probe.

"I burst into tears. I called my husband to say I can't take (her daughter) to the doctors because my bank is overdrawn."

Felicity told nine.com.au she had been repaying the debt to Centrelink at the time her bank account was drained. Without her knowledge, Centrelink had passed the debt onto the debt collector, she said.

"I called Centrelink and they said I shouldn't be talking to them because my debt was with a debt collector, and that I had to call ARL," she said.

"I called ARL and they said, 'yes we've got your account and we've been told to collect the amount in full'.

"I said, 'that is six months wages, I'm a student and a mum of a one-year-old. You've taken six months' wages away from me. I can't pay my rent, I can't buy food and worst of all I couldn't afford to take my daughter to the doctor'."

The debt collectors returned the money to Felicity's bank account, and put her on a repayment plan, which is still ongoing.

Felicity said she always suspected the debt was not right, but when she questioned it with Centrelink they said they had reviewed it and assured her it was correct.

Centrelink leaves single mum devastated after demanding $8,000 in 'debts' from years ago - but she takes on the welfare agency and WINS

  Centrelink leaves single mum devastated after demanding $8,000 in 'debts' from years ago - but she takes on the welfare agency and WINS Rebecca Wright, from New South Wales, was the victim of Cenrelink's controversial robodebt scheme and told she owed the welfare agency thousands of dollars from debts dating back to 2016.Rebecca Wright, from New South Wales, was a victim of Centrelink's controversial robodebt scheme and was told she owed the welfare agency debts dating back to 2016.

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"I'm a mother-of-two, and I'm a nurse and I'm a student … I didn't have the energy or the resources to fight them. So yes, I'm repaying it, even though I knew that it wasn't right, and I still know that it isn't right."

WHY SHE IS DOING IT

Felicity said she felt "honoured and humbled" to be able to go to court and "stick up for the little guy".

"It's terrifying, but at the same time, my mother always taught us never step down from a challenge. She said, 'whatever you do, it doesn't matter if people are going to love you or hate you for it, you have got to do what is morally correct."

"I don't care about the money. The only thing I want from this is for Centrelink to reflect on their behaviour and change. That's all I want."

STEVEN, 33, IT HELPDESK CONSULTANT FROM VICTORIA

HIS CASE

Steven was told by Centrelink at the end of 2018 that he owed $4500 due to overpayments on his Newstart Allowance.

"It was a bit heartstopping … I was pretty thrown by it," he said.

"The debt went back to five years when I was working as a checkout guy in Coles. I wasn't earning a lot at all. I was only casual at the time and I was only working a couple of shifts a week.

"I don't know how the $4500 came about and I still don't. I can't work out the maths on it."

Steven said he asked Centrelink for a review of the debt. But then, out of the blue, his tax return this year was suddenly taken.

"I appealed (the debt). It took months. They said we will send you something. I never got a thing. Then at tax time they took my money – the whole $4500, no notification, no nothing.

"I was banking on that money because my car needed fixing at the time, and to get to work is an hour-and-a-half each way."

Comment: Quiet Australians, it's time to ask Centrelink for your money back - loudly

  Comment: Quiet Australians, it's time to ask Centrelink for your money back - loudly A court victory for one robodebt victim is a triumph for all - except the government and bureaucracy that unlawfully gouged people's money.Great news for quiet Australians. On Wednesday, the Federal Court declared a robodebt of $2500 raised against Deanna Amato wasn’t lawful because it relied on income averaging. It ruled the order to garnishee Amato’s tax return was also invalid. And there was definitely no basis on which to add a 10 per cent penalty to the debt.

Data shows 7,456 debts were reduced to zero and another 12,524 partially reduced between July last year and March.

Since the scheme was introduced, people have reported receiving letters indicating that Centrelink believes they owe a sum of money, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, as a result of an Justice Jennifer Davies is yet to rule on whether the case can proceed. It will return to court in August.

After asking for another review, Steven said he was told the first amount was wrong, and he actually owed $1800 more.

"I was shocked, how did it climb? How did you get it wrong the first time?" he said.

WHY HE IS DOING IT

Steven said he was determined to fight back against Centrelink.

"It's good to stand up with the other people and not feel so alone and hard done by. The way the system is, you are just guilty until proven innocent," he said.

"I'm happy to stand up not just for myself but all the other people.

"The way I look at it, they have got nothing more to take. They would have to start (repossessing) physical things."

KATHERINE, MELBOURNE HIGH SCHOOL SCIENCE TEACHER

HER CASE

Katherine first found out she had a Centrelink debt when her tax return suddenly disappeared this year.

"I was confused. I thought there must have been some sort of mistake," she said.

The debt dated back to 2012 when Katherine was briefly receiving Newstart payments while working casually at a university.

After her tax return was taken, Katherine said she remembered some missed calls she had received from a number in the Philippines at strange times, like 8.30pm.

It later emerged that the calls were from a debt collector trying to verify her identity. However, Katherine said she thought they were a scam.

Katherine said she asked Centrelink for a spreadsheet to show how they had calculated her debt, but no details were forthcoming.

"They said it was based on an algorithm. I did ask to see how they calculated it… I was told that it would be too complicated for me to understand."

WHY SHE IS DOING IT

Katherine said her debt was still owing and she still had no idea why.

The teacher said she was motivated to join the class action to get answers for herself and help others in the same situation.

"I was very upset and angry about it, I've even thought about moving to New Zealand," she said.

"For them to think I owe them money would suggest that they think that I've committed welfare fraud."

In response to questions about the class action, aDepartment of Human Services spokesperson said: "We treat all legal matters very seriously and respect the judicial process."

"We are unable to comment while this matter is subject to legal proceedings."

While speaking at a press conference to announce the robodebt this week, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert said: "Government has an absolute legal obligation to raise debts where they exist. The average Australian expects us to use their funds wisely.

"The average Australian expects Government to ensure that the right people get the right amount of welfare at the right time. It's the most highly targeted welfare approach, literally, in the world. So we make no apologies."

*Name has been changed

Contact reporter Emily McPherson at emcpherson@nine.com.au

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