This article was provided by ProBono Australia.
A group of Tasmanian community services organisations have pooled resources to fund community legal centres offering support and advice to Centrelink debt letter recipients.
The partners, including Tasmanian Council of Social Service (TasCOSS), Relationships Australia, the Salvation Army, Mission Australia, Anglicare, Community Legal Centres Tasmania and the Mental Health Council of Tasmania, said they would provide $12,000 in funding.
They said people in Hobart and Launceston who were struggling to understand, respond to or dispute their debt letters would have access to increased support from Monday.
Hundreds of people are alleging they have incorrectly received debt notifications from the automatic system which seeks to recover $4 billion in budget savings and has generated 170,000 notices of potential overpayment since July.
The state director of Mission Australia in Tasmania and Victoria, Noel Mundy, told Pro Bono News the organisations involved in the partnership had experienced a “very significant increase” in requests for support from members of the community.
“People have been very traumatised, firstly, by the amount of the debt, we’re talking probably in most cases between $2,000 to $5,500, which for people on welfare is a very significant amount,” Mundy said.
“And… the concerns about the urgency in which they’ve been told they have to pay it and that they are now in the hands of a debt collecting agency, and… their initial debt goes up because it’s now being handled by a third party.
“Some of our clients received these letters the week before Christmas… and similarly we’re hearing stories where people who’ve got children going back to school at the end of January [are saying]: ‘How am I going to afford books or uniforms.’ So there’s that timing of it.
“And… one of the biggest complaints we’re getting is that when they do try to respond with the number that’s on the letter they’re just getting on-hold music… we’ve spoken to a couple of clients who’ve been on hold for up to two hours, and still can’t seem to get any answers.”
He said the debt recovery system also meant community legal centres were “inundated” because the process made it “impossible” for many debt letter recipients to respond to requests for repayment.
“They’re asking people in some cases to produce paperwork that might go back six or seven years of pay slips or expenses from work, and people just don’t hold those for six or seven years….gathering the evidence is just impossible for the clients that we work with,” he said.
“Additional hours for lawyers sitting within the community legal centre… will be able to assist the callers that they’re getting who have this massive debt.
“To work through the process and to advise the clients of their rights… [is] where the funding will be going.”
He said Tasmanian community service organisations often worked together to address large-scale problems.
“One of the benefits of being a small state is we all know one another and we all work together, and we know there’s not enough funds to go around if we all start competing,” he said.
“So we do try and work together as much as we possibly can, I think that’s a real benefit firstly to our sector but moreso to the clients at the end of the line that are getting… cooperative support from services.”
Mundy said other states were also considering a similar initiative in response to the so-called Centrelink debt crisis.
“Within Mission Australia nationally we’ve talked about similar [projects] across the country,” he said.
“My understanding also is that TasCOSS were in liaison with ACOSS, the Australian Council for Social Service and their COSS partners in other states with a very similar message.”