Social security appeals process

 

An appeal to the Social Security Appeals Tribunal can be initiated in writing, by telephone or by going to a Centrelink office. There is no time limit for an appeal.

Introduction

If you are affected by a Centrelink decision, you have the right to appeal that decision. If you are dissatisfied and think the decision is wrong, you can seek a review of that decision. A request for a decision to be reviewed can be made in writing, over the phone, or by visiting Centrelink. However, it is advisable that requests are made in writing. Reviews are conducted by authorised review officers, who are senior Centrelink officers.

Authorised review officers

Initially, a person seeking a review of a Centrelink decision must request a review by an authorised review officer (ARO) (s 129 Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 (Cth) (“SSA Act”)). The ARO can overturn the decision, vary the decision, and/or affirm the decision. The ARO provides the decision in writing. The ARO will give the person a letter explaining their decision, the reasons for their decision, the facts taken into account, and the relevant laws or Centrelink guidelines followed in reaching the decision. If the person is dissatisfied with the ARO’s decision, the next step is to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Administrative Appeals Tribunal


NOTE

On 1 July 2015, the Social Security Appeals Tribunal merged with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.


Most Centrelink decisions (e.g. rejection of a claim, cancellation of a benefit, decision to raise and recover an overpayment, specific issue affecting a rate or qualification like person’s relationship status) can be appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). The AAT has wide powers to make a new decision (e.g. to grant a benefit refused by Centrelink, restore a payment cancelled by Centrelink, increase a payment reduced by Centrelink, or set aside a Centrelink decision to recover a debt).

Decisions that are not reviewable by the AAT are listed in section 144 of the SSA Act. Some of these decisions relate to:

specifying the nature of claim forms and places of lodgment for claims;

requiring persons to give information to Centrelink;

continuing social security payments during an appeal; and

making income tax deductions from payments.

AAT hearings are usually before one person. Sometimes hearings are before two or three people: a lawyer, a social worker and/or an Executive Member. In medical cases (e.g. Disability Support Pension) the AAT usually has a medical member. Note that the AAT now also hears matters appealable under child support legislation and parental leave pay decisions.

Terms of reference

The AAT is directed to provide a review mechanism that is “fair, just, economical, informal and quick” (s 141 SSA Act). A person affected by a decision of Centrelink under the social security law may appeal to the SSAT (s 142 SSA Act).

How to appeal to the AAT

An appeal to the AAT can be made:

by writing to the AAT;

by phoning the AAT; or

by visiting or sending a written application to a Centrelink Customer Service Centre, Family Assistance Office or the AAT. Appeal forms are available but are not compulsory.

Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT)

Level 11, 565 Bourke Street, Melbourne Vic 3000

Tel: 1800 228 333

Email: sscsdivision@aat.gov.au

Web: www.aat.gov.au

Time limits

There is no time limit for an appeal. However, if the appeal is lodged more than 13 weeks after receiving Centrelink’s decision, any new decision can only take effect from the date of the appeal (s 152(4) SSA Act). This rule effectively restricts arrears, where payable, and there is no discretion to extend the period for lodgment of appeals.

Note that this rule, which also applies at the Authorised Review Officer stage, does not apply where written notification of the decision in question is not sent, or when a person is appealing against a debt decision. This rule also does not apply to family tax benefit decisions where different rules and time frames apply.

Access to information

When an appeal is made to the AAT, Centrelink must send the AAT a full statement of reasons for its decision and a copy of every relevant document in its possession (s 157(3) SSA Act). The AAT must then provide a copy of the statement of reasons to the person appealing (s 158 SSA Act). The AAT will also provide a copy of all relevant documents to the person before the hearing.

Prior to a hearing, a person can also demand access to their full records under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) (see Freedom of information law). The AAT will generally send the person the relevant Centrelink file documents before the appeal hearing, but sometimes the person may wish for additional documents to be considered.

The appeal hearing

Prior to the hearing, the AAT may conduct a Pre-hearing Conference between the applicant, the AAT and a Centrelink representative (s 166A SSA Act). These are rare and may occur in particularly complex reviews. The AAT may give directions about timelines and what evidence is to be brought before the AAT (although this does not limit the evidence that may be brought). If agreement is reached between the parties, the AAT may be able to give effect to that decision without proceeding to hearing.

At the hearing the applicant may make submissions to the AAT orally or in writing, and may be represented at the hearing by another person (s 161(3) SSA Act). A Centrelink Officer may attend the hearing, but this is rare. The hearing can be conducted by telephone or other electronic communications equipment. The AAT will provide an interpreter if needed.

The hearing is to be informal: the AAT is directed to act speedily and is not bound by technicalities, legal forms or rules of evidence (s 167 SSA Act). However, the AAT can take sworn evidence (s 164 SSA Act), and require Centrelink to provide further relevant information in its possession (s 165 SSA Act). The AAT cannot oblige any person to attend a hearing or provide information, but it can ask Centrelink to exercise its powers to demand information on behalf of the AAT (s 166 SSA Act).

The hearing is in private (s 168 SSA Act) and the AAT may direct a person present at the hearing to not disclose information revealed during the hearing (s 169 SSA Act).

The person appealing is generally responsible for their own costs and expenses, but the AAT may decide to reimburse individuals for travel and accommodation expenses, and for any medical expenses where the AAT arranges a medical examination (s 176 SSA Act).

The AAT’s powers

When reviewing a Centrelink decision, the AAT can affirm or vary the decision, set it aside and substitute a new decision or send the matter back to Centrelink for reconsideration. When reviewing a decision, the AAT has all the powers and discretions that the SSA Act gives to Centrelink (s 151(1) SSA Act), with the exception of a small list of powers (s 151(2) SSA Act).

Accordingly, if the AAT decides that the appeal should succeed, it can substitute a new decision, favourable to the person appealing, or send the matter back to Centrelink with a direction that Centrelink make a new (favourable) decision. As noted above, if the person has appealed within 13 weeks of the Centrelink decision, the AAT decision will be backdated to the date from which the original Centrelink decision took effect; otherwise, the AAT decision will be backdated to the date of the appeal.

Continuation of payment pending appeal

Where Centrelink has cancelled, suspended or reduced a pension, benefit or allowance under the SSA Act, and the person affected has appealed to the AAT, Centrelink has the power to declare that payment of the pension, benefit or allowance should continue until the appeal is decided or withdrawn (s 145 SSA Act). The AAT cannot hear an appeal against Centrelink’s decision under section 145. An urgent hearing should be sought instead as the decision appealed against will operate until the AAT decides to vary it or set it aside. A person can also lodge a complaint to the Commonwealth Ombudsman if dissatisfied with Centrelink’s actions.

Taking it further

Changes from 1 July 2015

Prior to 1 July 2015 (when the Social Security Appeals Tribunal (SSAT) merged with the AAT), there was a right of appeal from the SSAT to the AAT.

However, since 1 July 2015, a person dissatisfied with a Centrelink decision still has two tiers of review. Existing review processes have been maintained with some changes to the procedures. The two levels of merits review that existed for certain decisions reviewed by the SSAT continues to be available with a second tier of review at the AAT.

The first review is heard by the Social Services and Child Support Division of the AAT. Decisions that could be reviewed by the former SSAT can now be reviewed by the Social Services and Child Support Division of the AAT. The second review of the decision is heard by the General Division of the AAT.

The process of seeking review remains the same. An application for review can be lodged:

online (www.aat.gov.au);

in writing (posted to GPO Box 9943, Capital City of Resident);

in person to the AAT registry;

emailed to sscsdivision@aat.gov.au or generalreviews@aat.gov.au; or

apply via phone (1800 228 333).

Objectives of the new amalgamated AAT

The tribunal’s statutory objective is to provide a mechanism of review that:

is accessible;

is fair, just, economical, informal and quick;

is proportionate to the importance and complexity of the matter;

promotes public trust and confidence in the tribunal’s decision making.

More details about the new amalgamated AAT (e.g. practice directions, guides, and forms) are available at www.aat.gov.au.

Complaints

Where a person is dissatisfied with the actions of a Centrelink worker or a Centrelink process but redress is not available through the appeal process (e.g. because the decision is legally correct), a separate complaints mechanism exists through the Centrelink Customer Relations unit (tel: 1800 132 468). A complaint can be lodged initially with Customer Relations Unit. If the person is still dissatisfied with the outcome of their complaint, they can take it to the Commonwealth Ombudsman (www.ombudsman.gov.au).

Claiming compensation from Centrelink

Any person who has suffered a financial loss or detriment as a result of a mistake made by Centrelink may be able to claim compensation under the scheme for Compensation for Detriment caused by Defective Administration (CDDA).

The CDDA allows compensation to be paid to persons who have experienced detriment as a result of the defective actions or inaction of, in this case, Centrelink (i.e. an unreasonable failure to follow a procedure or an unreasonable failure to give proper advice that was within the officer’s power and knowledge, etc.).

Payments made under the CDDA are discretionary. This means there is no automatic entitlement to a payment.

The CDDA is generally an avenue of last resort and there is no further appeal option. However, a complaint can be lodged with the Commonwealth Ombudsman if the affected person is not happy with the handling of their claim by Centrelink.