The Federal Court has ruled that a debt raised by the Australian Government using its automated det recovery system was unlawful.
“In the circumstances, there was no material before the decision-maker capable of supporting the conclusion that a debt had arisen,” the court said.
“The conclusion that a debt had arisen was therefore irrational, in the requisite legal sense.”
Victoria Legal Aid brought the case against the government the Federal Court on behalf of its client, Deanna Amato.
“It feels amazing,” Amato said after the court made its ruling.
“You can feel so small and helpless next to the government, but I am so glad that the unfair and ultimately unlawful aspects of this system have been brought to light.
“I feel a weight lifted off my shoulders.
“I’ve proven my innocence, but also proven that there are reasons why you need all the facts before you can demand debt payments from people. Especially when those people were coming to you for help in the first place.”
In January, Amato discovered her entire tax return of $1709.87 had been taken by the government to pay a debt found by the robodebt scheme.
The debt had been raised because the system averaged Amato’s yearly income and matched it against income she reported to Centrelink. It found a discrepancy and determined there she owed a debt.
Centrelink sent eight letters notifying Amato that it had raised a debt of $2,754 against her – but the letters went to an address she no longer lived at.
After appealing her debt, Amato was refunded the money taken from her. Along with legal fees, this week’s federal court ruling saw the government agree to pay Amato a further $92 in interest on the initial sum of money.
Human Rights Commissioner, Edward Santow, said the case showed why governments need to be more careful with how they adopt emerging technology.
We need to consider carefully how emerging technologies are used by government at all levels for service delivery. The "make fast and break things" mentality carries serious human rights risks when vulnerable people are the subject of beta-testing. https://t.co/aiQ4zd7p9d— Edward Santow (@esantow) November 27, 2019
The court decision comes only a week after the government announced it would no longer raise debts purely based on the results of its income averaging algorithm.
"The department has made the decision to require additional proof when using income averaging to identity over payments," an email sent to Department of Human Services staff said.
"This means the department will no longer raise a debt where the only information we are relying on is our own averaging of Australia Taxation Office income data."