‘Robodebt’ violates international law

October 2, 2019

In a submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs inquiry into Centrelink’s compliance program Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) has called for urgent reform, noting the system violates international law and is manifestly unjust.

ALHR President Kerry Weste said, “The automated system, ‘Robodebt’, remains deeply problematic and raises significant human rights concerns, particularly in respect of Australia’s international legal obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).”

“This is a system that appears fundamentally flawed. It has calculated a large number of debts incorrectly. It has also consistently failed to adequately evidence alleged debts before issuing a notice. Contrary to usual principles of justice, it places a reverse onus on the recipient to disprove the alleged debt causing enormous anguish to the recipient and, worse still, without the recipient having adequate access to relevant records. The system has been plagued by inadequate staffing levels within the Department of Human Services (DHS) to assist recipients in relation to inquiries and is also badly affected by  inadequate training of those staff.”

Ms Weste continued, “The Robodebt dispute resolution processes remains difficult and unfair because the legislation governing payments from DHS is extraordinarily complex and beyond the understanding of most people. Whilst the Administrative Appeals Tribunal is less formal than a Court, it remains a daunting and formidable arena that few will navigate, especially without some form of legal support. Moreover, the automated system’s use of debt collection agencies may not comply with debt collection guidelines and it is not clear if such agencies have been appropriately trained in how to communicate with vulnerable people.”

“This is a manifestly unjust system that has a disproportionate impact on some of the most vulnerable members of our society, especially people with living with a disability,” said Ms Weste. As a party to ICESCR, Australia is obliged to provide a social security system, within the government’s maximum available resources, which supports access to social security without discrimination. In addition, governments must ensure that eligibility criteria for social security benefits are reasonable, proportionate and transparent. ”

“The current implementation and management of Australia’s social security system does not comply with our obligations under the ICESCR. Due to the disproportionate impact of Robodebt, Australia is, arguably, also in breach of obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

Ms Weste concluded, “The raising of alleged debts that are incorrectly calculated within a system that has little regard for the wellbeing of the most vulnerable in our community is in direct contrast with Australia’s obligations under the ICESCR. It is imperative that the Federal Government take immediate steps to address the issues and reform the system to ensure compliance with our obligations.

The submission is available in full here.

Contact: Matt Mitchell, ALHR media manager 0431 980 365.