Saturday, September 22, 2007

Breaches of Mutual Reponsibility: Can an Ant sue a Herd of Elephants?

Are there any lawyers lurking about?

The Question
Can Centrelink Recipients mount a class action against the Howard Government for breaching its own much-trumpeted Doctrine of "Mutual Responsibility".

Definition of terms
  • A state sanctioned band of reprobates who rob from the poor to give to the rich (hereinafter referred to as the 'Howard Government')
  • The Howard Government and its legal heirs and descendants, (just in case Labor gets in and ends up doing bugger all for the lumpen-proletariat) (hereinafter referred to as ' the State')
  • A poor sod trying to feed, clothe, transport, medicate, entertain and generally keep their family together on $200 a week after rent (hereinafter referred to as the "Centrelink Recipient" or "'the Individual"
Case Study

A school-leaver with Asperger's Syndrome (AS) began University in Semester 1, 2006. AS is characterised by high intelligence, but difficulties with executive function, eg the ability to self-start, prioritise and multi-task, as well as difficulties with social communication, eg naivety, an aversion to initiating contact. Often known as "Absent Minded Professor Syndrome", or "Nerd Syndrome".

The student, having a touching faith in the natural justice of the system, assumed that her Austudy Supplement would apply retrospectively to the beginning of the year. By the time the student had settled into her course and applied for the Supplement, she found she had missed out on 4 months' worth. Let's not get excited about the generosity of the State at this point, folks, we are only looking at $360 for the whole 12 weeks. The student was assured that appeal was pointless and left it at that.

After successfully finishing Semester 1 with Distinction, the Student realised that nevertheless University was too emotional demanding for her, and switched to TAFE. Alas, the student again made the wrong assumption. Knowing that as a Disability Pensioner, she was equally entitled to the Supplement at TAFE, and being disorganised, and finding it difficult to self-start, as well as to surmount the communication barrier by initiating contact with a government department, she just put her head in the sand and put off contacting Centrelink. She finished her TAFE course a year later, again with distinction.

Finally, having completed her education, the student, knowing she was no longer entitled to a subsidy, and being honest and lawabiding, overcame her fear of contact to notify Centrelink. It took her several weeks to get up the courage, but was perfect willing to pay back the overpayment, since the Austudy supplement is only $30 a week. She was shocked to discover, that the worst had happened. While she was entitled to the payment, by failing to report the change within 3 months, she had lost her entitlement, and now had an overpayment of something like $1800 to make, a huge amount for a person on a disability pension, and a sad way for a young person to embark on working life with a government debt.

Where is the mutual obligation?

While the student breached her responsibility to report within the statutory period, surely the State breached natural justice and fairness by depriving the student of her her rightful stipend on a mere technicality?

It sounds like State Chicanery.

Where is the reciprocity between a welfare recipient, operating with limited resources, and struggling with complex, difficult to access information, and the State, with all its organised resources and might?

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