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Domestic violence, social security and the couple rule

The federal Department of Social Security utilises the “couple rule” when determining a domestic and family violence (DFV) survivor’s access to social security payments, thereby tying any payments for which the survivor could potentially be eligible to the income and assets of the perpetrator. Yet, independent social security resources could provide a vital lifeline to survivors attempting to free themselves from violence and abuse. Not only does the research show those who experience DFV are more likely to experience sustained poverty and disability, but in practice the couple rule is used as an intimidation tool for perpetrating economic dependence.

In this research report for Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), Dr Lydnal Sleep, Griffith University, explored the experiences of women who appealed Centrelink decisions about the couple rule to the Administrative Appeal Tribunal (AAT), in cases where domestic violence was involved. Seventy AAT matters were identified over the period 1992 to 2016.

Dr Sleep found that “it is usual” for a person subject to a couple rule decision by the AAT in the context of DFV to be in a position where they are at risk of intersectional disadvantage, especially by belonging to one or more priority groups identified in the ANROWS National Research Agenda (2014), including culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) women; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women; older women; women with disability; women who are or have been incarcerated; lesbian, bisexual, intersex and transgender women; and women living in rural or remote areas. Specific priority group experiences included: underrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, perhaps indicating a reluctance to seek a formal appeal of social security decisions; irregular access to interpretation services for CALD women when being interviewed about their relationships; and even that the couple rule has been successfully applied in cases of DFV within forced marriage.

Further findings included that even when domestic violence was identified at the AAT, there was little indication that the AAT regularly applied the “special reason” provision to override the couple rule in cases involving domestic violence; there was also little indication that the AAT considered whether the information presented to the tribunal as evidence might be inaccurate due to systems abuse, i.e. due to having been manipulated by a perpetrator. Increasingly troublingly, police and health records documenting past domestic violence were often used during AAT hearings as evidence supporting the existence of a couple relationship. Finally, in almost every case examined, identifiable details about the individuals who appeared before the AAT were found to be published. These included full names, street addresses, places of work and children’s schools.

Key recommendations of the report include:

  • amending the Social Security Act 1991 (Cth) to explicitly include domestic violence as a factor to be considered when determining whether a person should be considered a member of a couple for social security purposes and whether a Centrelink debt should be waived;
  • Centrelink and the AAT should develop guidelines regarding the use of domestic violence records from state institutions (including police and hospitals);
  • AAT decisions should be de-identified before becoming publicly available to protect women’s safety.

Access the report.

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