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Slater and Gordon lawyers investigating if Centrelink debt system breaches law

22 January 2017
Christopher Knaus
The Guardian

Firm stops short of committing to legal action, saying it is ‘reviewing Centrelink’s conduct’

The law firm Slater and Gordon says it is investigating whether Centrelink’s controversial debt recovery system is in breach of the law. But the firm has stopped short of committing to legal action, saying it is only in preliminary stages.

“Slater and Gordon is currently reviewing Centrelink’s conduct for the purpose of confirming whether it has engaged in any contraventions of applicable laws,” Slater and Gordon’s practice group leader, Tim Finney told Guardian Australia. “This investigation is still in its formative stages and it is too early to say what form any possible legal action against Centrelink would take.”

The Australian Lawyers Association has said it believes those wrongly targeted with debts could sue the government but said those billed for lesser amounts would need to mount a class action for a civil case to be viable.

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The human services minister, Alan Tudge, continued to defend the automated debt recovery system on Friday. The system, which has been the subject of repeated complaints, relies on a messy data-matching process to identify discrepancies between Centrelink and Australian taxation office records.

Where humans would previously have weeded out errors, the system now automatically sends letters demanding an explanation of years-old income discrepancies within 21 days. More than 170,000 letters have been sent since July.

If the letter is not received, or a person is unable to respond with sufficient evidence, the debt is imposed and individuals are forced to begin paying the money back. 

Several whistleblowers have now come forward, alleging the system is generating inaccurate debts, that staff are being told to ignore errors and that customers are being put in an unfair position.