University research support for Domestic Violence Centrelink Debt Waver Bill

Reforming the law to allow the Centrelink debts of family or domestic violence victims to be waived is long overdue.

This is the view from Griffith University social justice researcher Dr Lyndal Sleep, who has provided strong support to the recent move by Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, to introduce to parliament a private bill aimed at relieving the burden for such victims on Centrelink payments.

MP Wilkie introduced to parliament a private bill late last month, aimed specifically at relieving the burden for such victims on Centrelink payments.

Existing legislation allows for debts to be cleared in special circumstances, but Mr Wilkie believes it’s vague and may not apply to some situations.

The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Relieving Domestic Violence Victims of Debt) Bill 2017 gives Centrelink the specific power to waive Centrelink debts incurred by victims of domestic violence due to the abuse.

“I applaud Mr Wilkie’s concern about this area of law and its effect on women who have experienced domestic violence,” says Dr Sleep, from Griffith’s School of Human Services and Social Work, who has been researching social security law, debt and domestic violence for several years.

Long overdue reform

“This reform is long overdue. It is a fundamental injustice that survivors of domestic violence are forced to relay debt that was incurred as a direct result of their abuse. This reform should be strongly supported by both the government and the opposition.

“My research has shown that social security rules for debt recovery effectively entrap women in abusive relationships and has the capability for perpetrators to further control their victims.”

Dr Sleep also found that in deciding if a woman who has experienced domestic violence should repay a Centrelink debt, that domestic violence police reports have been used as evidence that they should repay the debt, rather than it being waived.

“Additionally, women who have incurred a Centrelink debt due to domestic violence can also be imprisoned for fraud through the criminal courts,” she says.
However, while Dr Sleep admits that Mr Wilki’s reform is necessary and an important first step, she says that deeper reform is also needed to protect victims of domestic violence from both Centrelink debt and criminal prosecution for fraud that abusive partners forced them carry out.

“The core of the problem is with the way that all Centrelink payments means-test couples as a single economic unit. This is different to taxation that assesses people as individuals.

“The couple rule is where social security law decides of a person is a member of a couple for Centrelink purposes.

“This couple focus has a particularly insidious effect on women who are in abusive relationships. They are often punished for relationship fraud at a time when they’re attempting to begin a new life free from their abuser.”