Social Security Appeals
Authorised Review Officer
Initially, a person seeking review of a Centrelink decision must request review by an Authorised Review Officer (ARO) (s129, Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 (Cth) (“SSA Act”)). The ARO will give the person a letter explaining their decision, the facts taken into account and the parts of the legislation 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 (“AAT”).
Social Services & Appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal
Most Centrelink decisions can be appealed to the AAT, which has wide powers to make a new decision, for example, 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 (s144, SSA Act). Some of these decisions are:
- specifying the nature of claim forms and places of lodgment for claims;
- requiring persons to give information to Centrelink;
- about continuing social security payments during an appeal; and
- to make income tax deductions from payments.
The AAT hearings are usually before one member. Sometimes hearings are before two or three members: 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” (s2A, AAT Act). A person affected by a decision of Centrelink under the social security law may appeal to the AAT.
Note that a separate complaints mechanism exists through the Centrelink Customer Relations unit (tel: 1800 050 004) and the Commonwealth Ombudsman where a person is dissatisfied with the actions of a Centrelink worker or a Centrelink process but redress is not available through the AAT (e.g because the decision is legally correct).
How to appeal
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 (see full contact details below). Appeal forms are available but are not compulsory.
There is no time limit for an appeal. However, if the appeal is lodged more than 13 weeks after receiving the Centrelink decision, any new decision can only take effect from the date of the appeal (s43(6), AAT Act). This rule effectively restricts arrears, where payable, and there is no discretion to extend the period for lodgement of appeals.
Note that this rule, which also applies at the ARO stage, does not apply where written notification of the decision in question is not sent and does not impose a time limit on a person 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 may be asked by the AAT to send the AAT a full statement of reasons for its decision and a copy of every relevant document in its possession (s157(3), AAT Act). The AAT has the power to require it to submit them.
Prior to a hearing, a person can demand access to their full records under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth). 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 order a pre-hearing conference (an alternative dispute resolution process) between the applicant, the AAT and a Centrelink representative (s34A, AAT Act). These are rare, and may occur in particularly complex reviews. 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 (s32, AAT Act). A Centrelink Officer may also attend the hearing. The hearing can be conducted by telephone or other electronic communications equipment if necessary. 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 (s32(1)(c), AAT Act). However, the AAT can take sworn evidence (s40, AAT Act), and require Centrelink to provide further relevant information in its possession (s40A, AAT Act). The hearing is to be in private (s168, 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 (s176, 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 are given to Centrelink (s43, AAT 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 Social Security 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 (s145, SSA Act). The AAT cannot hear an appeal against Centrelink’s decision under section (s145). 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 actions of Centrelink.