Secrecy surrounding Robodebt to be tested in legal battle

18 June 2021
A long-running legal battle to access documents behind the Federal Government’s botched Robodebt scheme will be heard next week by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal from June 21 to 23.

The tribunal hearing comes just over a week after the Federal Court approved a $112 million class action settlement for victims of the controversial Robodebt scheme that unlawfully collected money from some of the most financially disadvantaged people in the community.

The case before the tribunal centres on early business plans and other documents produced by the Department of Human Services – now known as Services Australia – to justify the roll out of the Robodebt scheme.

These documents could reveal what Prime Minister Scott Morrison and senior ministers Christian Porter and Alan Tudge knew when they had responsibility for the program.

Human rights advocate Justin Warren first requested the documents under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws back in 2017.

When the department refused to release the documents, Mr Warren challenged the decision through the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, and won.

This month’s tribunal hearing is a further appeal by Services Australia against the Information Commissioner’s decision to release the documents.

Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, acting for Mr Warren, will argue the documents should be released.

Mr Warren hopes that if successful, the release of the documents can shed more light on who knew what about Robodebt and how the automated debt recovery program was designed and approved at the most senior levels of the public service and possibly Government.

The case forms part of the Grata FOI Project and is being run pro bono by Maurice Blackburn.

It is the second piece of litigation to come out of the Grata FOI Project, which aims to hold ministers and government departments accountable to FOI law and ensure the public are able to scrutinise decisions of Government, particularly those that affect our most marginalised communities.

Quote attributable to Isabelle Reinecke, founder and executive director at Grata Fund:

“A functioning FOI system is crucial for a transparent and functioning democracy. Not only should these documents be released, but we need to have an independent, arms-length inquiry into what happened, and who knew what when.”

Quote attributable to Jennifer Kanis, Principal Lawyer at Maurice Blackburn:

“The Robodebt program has caused severe financial stress and harm to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people. The documents at the centre of this case, if released, could give these people important answers about what the government knew, and when, about the risks of the failed and unlawful scheme.”

Media access to the hearing:

Journalists who wish to attend the hearing should email media@aat.gov.au before 8am on the day of the hearing with their request.

Detailed instructions for how media and the public can request access to the hearing is available on the tribunal website here.

Background materials:

Background on the case is available on AustLII here.

Stories about the impact of the unlawful Robodebt program are available at the #NotMyDebt website here.

Media Enquiries: Chee Chee Leung on 0412 560 584 or cleung@mauriceblackburn.com.au

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