A four-year fight to access the documents underpinning the government's robodebt scheme will be heard by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on Monday, in a bid to reveal what ministers and senior bureaucrats knew about the program.
The new hearing comes just a week after the federal court ordered the government pay back $1.8 billion to victims of the scheme, including $112 million in interest.
The government agreed to pay back $751 million and wipe further debts that had been raised but not yet collected under the scheme.
'Robodebt' is the term widely-used to describe a program introduced by the government in 2016, where debts were raised against current and former welfare recipients after a computer system used "income-averaging" to spread a person's reported taxable income across every fortnight of the year.
More than 430,000 people were victims of the scheme, many of which were chased by debt collectors and had interest added to their debts.
In the decision on the class action Justice Bernard Michael Murphy called it a "shameful chapter in the administration of the Commonwealth social security system and a massive failure in public administration".
Not only should these documents be released, but we need to have an independent, arms-length inquiry into what happened, and who knew what when.Isabelle Reinecke, executive director Grata Fund
The system raised debts worth thousands of dollars against hundreds of thousands of people, before it was found to be unlawful by the Federal Court.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Industry Minister Christian Porter and Education Minister Alan Tudge were all former Social Services Ministers at key times in the program.
The case to be heard over three days from Monday to Wednesday centres on documents including early business plans and others produced by the then Department of Human Services that have been requested under Freedom of Information laws.
The documents were originally requested by digital rights advocate Justin Warren in 2017, but the Department of Human Services, now known as Services Australia, rejected the request on a number of fronts.
The Australian Information Commissioner over-ruled the department's decision in 2019 in relation to some of the documents, and the department appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Mr Warren is hoping the documents will reveal who knew what and when at the highest levels of the public service and the government about a program at least one family believes contributed to the suicide of their son.
The case is part of the Grata Fund's project to ensure the Freedom of Information system is strengthened in Australia. Grata Fund's executive director Isabelle Reinecke said just releasing the documents wasn't enough.
"A functioning FOI system is crucial for a transparent and functioning democracy," she said.
"Not only should these documents be released, but we need to have an independent, arms-length inquiry into what happened, and who knew what when."
Maurice Blackburn lawyers are representing Mr Warren pro bono, and principal lawyer Jennifer Kanis said releasing the documents could give vulnerable people answers.
"The Robodebt program has caused severe financial stress and harm to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people," Ms Kanis said.
"The documents at the centre of this case, if released, could give these people important answers about what the government knew, and when, about the risks of the failed and unlawful scheme."
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