Self-Disclosure in Cases Involving Domestic Violence

admin SOCIAL SECURITY RIGHTS REVIEW

Kate Beaumont and Catherine Eagle (WRSWA)

People receiving a Centrelink payment are under an obligation to tell the Department of Human Services (DHS) correct information about their circumstances at the time of a claim and of any change in their circumstances which may impact on their payment within 14 days of the change occurring. [1] A person may not fulfil this obligation within the required time or may not realise until later that the change in their circumstances might be relevant to their Centrelink payment. They may then decide that they wish to disclose the information to Centrelink but are anxious about the possible consequences of making a “self-disclosure”.

The need to understand the impact of self-disclosure is particularly important in cases where domestic violence is an issue. An example of this is where a person has not disclosed certain information to Centrelink as a result of duress or coercion by someone they have been in a relationship with or because of other aspects of their experience of domestic violence, or where certain circumstances can only be understood fully if they are seen in the context of a violent relationship.

Self-disclosure issues can arise in a range of circumstances and can have a varied impact on the person’s entitlements in the past, present and future. A Centrelink debt may be raised for a past period. The person’s current rate of payment may decrease. Issues of self-disclosure commonly arise where a person has taken family law or child support action following a separation/end of a violent relationship or received verbal threats from the other party that they will ‘dob them in’ to Centrelink or they have realised that Centrelink is using incorrect information to calculate their payments. For this reason it is important that a person seeks independent legal advice about all their circumstances so they understand how best to proceed.

Welfare Rights & Advocacy Service (WRAS) in Western Australia have developed expertise in advising clients about their rights and responsibilities in relation to disclosing information to DHS. WRAS will be conducting a community legal education activity about self-disclosure to welfare rights lawyers and caseworkers at the Annual NSSRN Conference in August 2019.

Case Study

WRAS assisted a client receiving Age Pension who was at risk of having a debt raised against her as she had been receiving the single rate of Age Pension while sharing accommodation with a younger person.

The client’s housemate had been particularly controlling and was pressuring the client to sign ownership of her home to him and make him a beneficiary of her will. The client wanted the other party to be removed from her accommodation but was reluctant to make an application for a Violence Restraining Order (VRO) as she was concerned that she would face consequences in relation to her past Centrelink payments.

WRAS provided advice to the client about self-disclosure to Centrelink. The client detailed a history of sexual violence and economic abuse by the other party. WRAS prepared a detailed written submission to Centrelink about the client’s circumstances and that it was unlikely that her situation met the criteria in social security law to be considered a member of a couple. Supporting evidence about the violence was provided by the client’s doctor, psychologist and an independent third party witness.  Due to the sensitive nature of the submissions it was submitted to a Centrelink social worker rather than through usual service channels.

Centrelink decided that the woman had not been a member of a couple and had been receiving the correct rate of payment. With the Centrelink entitlement issue resolved it allowed the client to make an application for a VRO with the assistance of lawyers at a local Health Justice Partnership. Without the assistance of WRAS to resolve the self-disclosure issue, the client may not have taken action to end the abusive and controlling relationship and have the other party removed from her accommodation.

In the second half of 2019, WRAS is partnering with the National Social Security Rights Network and the University of Wollongong to conduct a research project looking at how Centrelink compliance processes can be improved by DHS to take into account the impact of domestic violence, especially in cases where required information is not accurately disclosed as a result of duress and coercion.

 

[1] Exception to 14 day notification is receipt of compensation which is 7 day notification requirement.