The Department of Social Services was warned it was “not above the law” after a court heard government officials threatened to ignore an order restoring jobseeker’s payments. a man.
In a published judgmentMichelle Evans-Bonner, a senior member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, criticized the department, which is responsible for Services Australia and Centrelink, for what she called “misconduct”.
Evans-Bonner accused the department of issuing an “ultimatum” that he would ignore court rulings if they were unfavorable, reminding him that he was “not above the law.”
In a subsequent statement to Guardian Australia, the department challenged the court’s interpretations of its submissions, saying it “takes its commitment to be a model litigant very seriously.”
At stake was a court ruling to restore a man’s jobseeker’s allowance. Centrelink had canceled the payment, but the court found the man to be eligible.
The tribunal acts to review decisions of the federal government, including those rendered by Centrelink. He ordered Centrelink to pay Peter Dawson’s arrears for jobseeker payments between March 31, 2020 and February 22, 2021.
The judgment said Dawson claimed a job seeker after his business closed due to the March 2020 closures. It was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
Centrelink appealed the decision, but missed the three-day deadline.
He asked the court to make an exception, citing “an administrative oversight” for missing the deadline.
Evans-Bonner said the department secretary was “often a party to court proceedings and was aware of the 28-day deadline.”
“Indeed, during my tenure in court, I have never presided over a petition where the secretary missed the 28-day deadline,” she said.
Although not named in the judgment, the secretary of the social services department is Ray Griggs.
Evans-Bonner ruled that “administrative oversight” was “an acceptable explanation for the delay”.
However, the judgment said the ministry had previously argued that it “would essentially ignore any decision of this tribunal and apply the law as [it] hear it “.
This position was confirmed in oral submissions presented to the court, according to the judgment.
Evans-Bonner said this was “totally unacceptable and contrary to the secretary’s statutory role as a responsible public office holder and as a model litigator.”
She declined to hear the ministry’s case, citing, in part, “the secretary’s misconduct in giving me, in court, which was in effect an ultimatum that if I were to render an adverse decision to the secretary, that the secretary ignore it ”.
“I remind the secretary that he is not above the law,” she said.
Evans-Bonner was under no obligation to judge whether the man qualified for benefits, although she acknowledged that the department may have had a case regarding the amount of arrears ordered.
However, she refused to accept the ministry’s appeal.
“In view of the conduct of the Secretary in this matter and although I have presented these reasons orally, I propose to publish these reasons in the coming days as there is a public interest in doing so, including the promotion of transparency. and accountability in government decision-making, ”said Evans-Bonner.
A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services said “no ultimatum was included in the submission to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.”
“The ministry takes its commitment to be a model litigator very seriously,” the spokesperson said.
‘Counsel for Services Australia, during the hearing, attempted to clarify that one of the grounds for requesting an extension of time was to obtain further information on Mr Dawson’s income and assets. in order to be able to effectively determine Mr. Dawson’s entitlement to payment of job seekers.
“Of course, the court decision has been implemented.”
In June, the Scott Morrison government struck a $ 1.8 billion robodebts scandal deal, in which Centrelink issued hundreds of thousands of illegal social debts.
He was accused of ignoring the decisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in connection with this scandal.