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Social security appeals system

1. Right to Appeal

You have the right to appeal against decisions you believe are wrong according to the laws covering social security payments and family assistance payments (Family Tax Benefit, Child Care Benefit, Maternity Payment and Maternity Immunisation Allowance). You do not have to give a reason for appealing against a Centrelink decision — you can just ask for a second opinion.

Do not let anybody persuade you not to lodge an appeal until you have obtained independent advice (see ‘Independent advice and assistance’).

Lodge your appeal as soon as possible. There is no time limit for lodging appeals. However, if you want to claim back pay from the time Centrelink made the original decision, you must lodge your appeal within 3 months of the receiving the decision in writing. If you lodge the appeal after 3 months, you will only be paid 3 months back pay.

If you need time to gather evidence to support your argument, lodge your appeal and gather the necessary evidence later.

Make sure you keep a copy of everything you send to Centrelink or the tribunal.

The social security appeals process comprises four steps, two of which are carried out internally by Centrelink staff, and two of which are carried out by members of external tribunals. The steps are

  • internal review
    • a review by the Centrelink worker who made the decision (optional)
    • a review by a Centrelink Authorised Review Officer
  • external review
    • a hearing in the Social Security Appeals Tribunal
    • a hearing in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

2. Internal review

Centrelink places much emphasis on resolving disputes about decisions internally (themselves). Therefore, if you think a decision about your payment is wrong, you must first ask Centrelink to reconsider the decision.

This approach can be useful, particularly if you want an urgent response, or if you would be traumatised by having to go through a lengthy appeal process.

On the other hand, Centrelink workers sometimes refuse to budge or refuse to exercise discretion. In these situations, an internal review is not likely to change the decision, because Centrelink workers must make decisions in line with government policy, even if doing so results an wrong decision according to the law.

Having a decision reviewed internally by Centrelink may be compulsory, but remember it is only the first step. Do not be discouraged if your appeal is unsuccessful — there are further steps you can take.

3. Original decision maker

Centrelink tells most clients who want to appeal against a decision that they must first speak to the person who made the decision. However, they cannot force you to do so. If you wish, you can insist on going straight to an Authorised Review Officer (see below).

Centrelink will often insist that you allow the person who made the disputed decision to properly explain the decision to you. However, be aware that there is a difference between a properly explained decision and a wrong decision, and a lengthy explanation does not necessarily mean the decision is right. Always get independent advice (see ‘Independent advice and assistance’) before abandoning your appeal.

Centrelink staff do not usually give you much information about their reasons for making decisions. If you want to know more about the reasons, ask for more information or ask for a review by an Authorised Review Officer. If you need a quick decision, apply for review by an Authorised Review Officer immediately, because their decisions are usually more detailed.

You can ask the person who made the disputed decision for specific items from your Centrelink record. However, if you want the complete record, you must make a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, and Centrelink must respond to your request within 30 days.

4. Authorised Review Officer

A review by an Authorised Review Officer (ARO) is the first formal stage of the review or appeal process. You cannot apply for an external review until your case has been reviewed by an Authorised Review Officer.

Authorised Review Officers are usually based in local Centrelink offices, but they are supposed to be independent of the original decision maker. They will often speak to you or your advocate before making a decision, and sometimes they will refer your file back to the original decision maker to obtain more information or records.

It is usually better to tell Centrelink that you want your decision reviewed by an Authorised Review Officer first. A review by another worker, especially if they cannot change the decision, may be a waste of time.

If it may be helpful, you can give the Authorised Review Officer new evidence to support your case.

5. External or independent review

The external review process has two stages: the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. It is sometimes possible to appeal to a court, but this is usually costly and prolonged.

The powers and some of the practices of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and Administrative Appeals Tribunal are laid down in law. Both tribunals are independent of Centrelink, and are not required to follow government policy when making decisions.

Both tribunals start afresh when considering your case. In most cases, they have the power to make a new decision.

6. Social Security Appeals Tribunal

The Social Security Appeals Tribunal (SSAT) can review decisions about most social security and family assistance matters.

Social Security Appeals Tribunal hearings are usually conducted by a panel of two or three tribunal members. The tribunal members may be lawyers, community workers, public administrators or doctors.

Centrelink does not attend Social Security Appeals Tribunal hearings. Instead, they present their case in writing to you and the tribunal beforehand.

7. Administrative Appeals Tribunal

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal is a more formal tribunal that considers cases involving all Australian Government departments. Hearings are usually conducted by one to three tribunal members.

Appealing a social security or family assistance decision in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal involves a formal legal process in which you and Centrelink present your cases, call witnesses (if desired), and cross-examine each other’s evidence.

When the Social Security Appeals Tribunal notifies its decision, the unsuccessful party has 28 days to lodge an appeal against the decision in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).

Next Section: Appealing to Social Security Appeals Tribunal