Centrelink has wiped clean the debt at the centre of a second Federal Court case challenging the controversial Robodebt data matching and debt recovery program.
Victorian Legal Aid said on Friday that its client Deanna Amato has been told her Robodebt of $2754 had been wiped, after a recalculation process found the true overpayment to be just $1.48.
The 33-year-old local government employee says Centrelink has refunded her over $1700, after it garnisheered her full tax return earlier this year. At the time, she had never spoken to anyone from Centrelink about the supposed debt.
This is the second of two test cases run by Legal Aid through the Federal Court where Centrelink had wiped the alleged debt before the cases were argued in court.
“I’m happy that I don’t have a big debt looming over me anymore, but on the other hand, I’m stunned that it was recalculated so easily after I took legal action,” said Ms Amato said in a statement.
“Centrelink will make you jump through hoops to prove your innocence, but it turns out they were capable of finding out if my reporting was correct and that I didn’t owe them anything like what the robo-debt claimed I owed. It makes me question the system even more,” she said.
Labor’s government services spokesman Bill Shorten accused government of pressing ahead with the Robodebt program while knowing full-well that the scheme is illegal. Each time the legality of the program has been scheduled to be tested by a court, he sayd, the alleged debt has been wiped clean.
Despite government having “hounded” at least 160,000 people to pay back debts that did not exist, where the client has fought the debt – including in hundreds of appeals heard by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal – the government has rolled over and accepted the claim.
The result that a judgement cannot be made on the legality of the wider Robodebt scheme.
“Clearly the Government does not want the legality of their bureaucratic standover racket tested in court,” Mr Shorten said.
“Clearly they hope these last minute reprieves will help them convince the court that they have no case to answer and that the system corrects its errors,” he said.
“What is truly unconscionable is that Minister for Robodebt Stuart Robert refuses to call off the Robodebt hounds while knowing it could be illegal and actively working to prevent it being found just that. In fact, he is considering expanding the scheme to even more vulnerable categories of people.”
Victoria Legal Aid executive director of civil justice access and equity Rowan McRae said our legal challenges to the scheme would continue, despite Ms Amato’s debt being reduced to just $1.48.
“We cannot accept a system that is so clearly flawed and causing overwhelming hardship to the most disadvantaged people in our community,” Ms McRae said.
“We are contacted every day by people who are feeling overwhelmed by this system that puts the onus on them to disprove debts,” she said. “It is important that a court looks at the lawfulness of the process Centrelink relies on to decide that people owe them money.”
Ms Amato said that while she was happy not to have a big debt looming over her anymore, she was “stunned that it was recalculated so easily after I took legal action.”
“Centrelink will make you jump through hoops to prove your innocence, but it turns out they were capable of finding out if my reporting was correct and that I didn’t owe them anything like what the Robodebt claimed I owed. It makes me question the system even more,” Ms Amato said.
“It was scary when Centrelink took my tax return out of the blue. I had no idea what my rights were, or if Centrelink even had this kind of power over my money, so I turned to legal aid for advice,” she said.
“Now that they have wiped the debts of both Victoria Legal Aid cases, it makes me wonder how many people have paid supposed debts that were completely inaccurate. I hate to think of more people suffering because of incorrect calculations.”