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General / Thematic: Business and Human Rights: The Limits of the Law

Disclosable, but not Necessarily Fatal? Welfare Overpayments in the Uncertain Landscape of Fitness for Practice


Mark Thomas

Recently, media reports and a Senate Inquiry[1] raised the issue of widespread errors by Centrelink[2] in sending out µdebt recovery’ letters to recipients of social security benefits alleging overpayments.[3] Even in the absence of automated systems, overpayments arise under a wide range of circumstances in relation to welfare benefits accessed by students either before or during the course of study,[4] ranging from administrative errors by Centrelink to calculated fraud by the recipient. Most overpayments exist against a background of financial hardship or troubled personal circumstances.[5]

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(2017) 40(3) UNSWLJ 1072:

  1. Sarah Martin, ‘Senate to Assess Centrelink’s Automated Welfare Crackdown’, The Australian (Canberra), 20 January 2017, 8.
  2. Centrelink (formerly the Department of Social Security) is the Australian government agency which provides financial assistance to students subject to an income test. It is analogous to systems that exist in most common law jurisdictions, administering either income support, student loans or a combination of these: see, eg, the United Kingdom, where student loans and grants primarily provided by the government through the Student Loans Company (‘SLC’), a non-departmental public body; and New Zealand, where the Ministry of Social Development administers student allowances (‘Studylink’).
  3. Peter Martin, ‘Centrelink’s Robo-Debacle is a Litany of Inhuman Error’, The Sydney Morning Herald (online), 4 January 2017 <>.
  4. The form of benefit most relevant to law students is Austudy or, in the case of Indigenous students, ABSTUDY, but significant numbers are also eligible for Family Tax Benefits. Less frequently utilised programs include Student Start-up Loans, Student Start-up Scholarships, and Rent Assistance.
  5. See Greg Marston and Tamara Walsh, ‘A Case of Misrepresentation: Social Security Fraud and the
    Criminal Justice System in Australia’ (2008) 17 Griffith Law Review 285, 289.