The federal government has been criticized by a judge for allegedly refusing for four years to tell a woman whose son committed suicide if he was involved in the robodebt scheme.
Jennifer Miller was among the witnesses at a hearing in federal court Thursday to determine whether the court should approve a class action settlement brought by Gordon Legal against the illegal social debt collection program.
Miller has previously spoken of his son, Rhys Cauzzo, 28, and while acknowledging his battles with mental health, believes his suicide was directly linked to a $ 17,000 Centrelink debt he received on Australia Day 2017.
“I could see quite clearly where the pressure was coming from,” Miller said in court Thursday.
Despite the fact that Cauzzo passed away in 2017, Miller told the court she still doesn’t know if her son was involved in the robodebt program, which ran from 2015 to November 2019.
She said Services Australia still had not told her whether Cauzzo’s debt involved “income averaging”.
At the heart of robodebt’s system, the method relied on ATO data and was subsequently declared illegal.
Miller said that although she had received no response, the government had at one point released information to the media about her son’s case.
Justice Bernard Murphy said he should be told “frankly and frankly” whether the debt was generated using the income averaging method.
“It just seems to me a matter of common humanity,” he said.
Michael Hodge QC, acting for the Commonwealth, was unable to say whether Cauzzo was involved in the scheme.
The court later learned that this contrasted with another mother, Kath Magdwick, who had been told by Services Australia that her late son Jarrad’s debt had not been increased through ‘income averaging’.
Hodge acknowledged that this was “not desirable”, but suggested that there might be legal reasons why the details of the debt could not be provided by Services Australia.
Murphy said he doubts privacy provisions prevent information from being passed on to a “bereaved mother.”
Miller told the court “the only things I’ve ever had are platitudes, I was shown no respect” and that she opposed the settlement because the government had not been held accountable.
“I’m happy people are getting reimbursed, but it’s illegal and we’ve had so many people suffering,” she said.
The class action lawsuit, initially on behalf of around 600,000 people, was reduced to around 400,000 when Gordon Legal and the government reached a settlement on the first day of a lawsuit in November last year.
Thursday’s hearing allowed some of the 500 opponents to share their stories of distress, fear and the financial impact caused by the program.
Magdwick, whose son Jarrad also committed suicide in 2017 over Centrelink debt, also opposed the settlement.
Madgwick admitted that she had been told her son’s debt was not a “jerk,” but said others deserved much more compensation.
“Justice has not been served,” she said.
Jordan Chadwick said she was hunted down by debt collector Dun And Bradstreet during times when her partner and then her father committed suicide.
She said she had continually received threats that her salary would be garnished or that her car would be repossessed.
“My dad had just killed himself and my phone rang every day,” Chadwick told court.
After $ 11,000 was seized from her tax return, Chadwick said she had to apply for a credit card and personal loans, noting that “funeral expenses don’t come cheap.”
She was eventually reimbursed but said she was “here to say it’s more than a question”.
“The emotional toll is ridiculous,” she said.
Under the settlement, victims will be reimbursed and share an additional $ 112 million in “compensation”, which will reflect interest on money they did not have, after paying illegal debts to the government.
The settlement also includes around $ 720 million in repayments and around $ 400 million in debt that has been “reduced to zero”, which was previously reported by the government in May 2020.
This means that those whose lives were affected by the stress or anxiety of an illegal debt, but continued to challenge it or refused to pay, will not receive any compensation.
Some opponents told the court it was unfair not to receive any compensation for distress and inconvenience, as their debts – initially illegal – were later supported by evidence.
In most cases, this evidence was provided by social assistance recipients after receiving an initial debt letter who told them to hand in payslips to prove they didn’t owe the money.
But Murphy reiterated that his view was that this legal argument was “weaker” than the case of people who had received “illegal” debt and simply paid it off before it was justified.
Cyprian Kramarczyk said he was considering suicide when he received a letter from robodebt saying he owed tens of thousands of dollars.
It was then reduced to $ 5,000 after he provided the agency with his payroll information.
Kramarczyk said it was a “little consolation prize” to say “after a few years you only have to pay us $ 5,000”.
Murphy told him he was “not the only one” who felt suicidal, saying many opponents had “heartbreaking stories to tell.”
Some opponents have also complained that class members were being asked to approve the settlement when they had not yet been told whether they would receive compensation.
Services Australia spokesperson Hank Jongen said the agency could not “discuss the details of the case, particularly while the class action proceedings are ongoing.”
“We recognize how difficult this time has been for Ms. Miller and we have been in contact with her on several occasions to offer her our support,” he said.
“We will contact Ms. Miller again to reaffirm our offer of support and to discuss any other questions she may have.”
In Australia, the Lifeline crisis helpline is 13 11 14. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. You can find other international suicide helplines at befrienders.org