The Morrison government wants to keep its own taxpayer-funded litigation costs secret from the robodebt scandal, despite the fact that they are no longer facing lawsuits over the program.
This month the government again claimed immunity of general interest when one refuses to answer 19 questions from a Senate inquiry examining the scheme, according to a report from the upper house.
The questions covered the content of any legal advice that the government sought, and more generally, whether advice was sought at all and when it may have been given.
The answers could shed light on whether the government received direct legal warnings about the scheme, which was found illegal by the federal court and which it has reached a settlement of 1.8 billion with 500,000 welfare recipients.
The federal government has issued a complete denial of answering the questions, claiming immunity of general interest because it says answering may affect its prospects in court.
It also says there is a long-standing practice of not releasing legal advice, a claim the Senate committee has rejected.
Services Australia, the public body that administered the illegal scheme, has also refused to say how much it had spent on legal costs for defend lawsuits brought by Victoria Legal Aid and Gordon Legal. The government eventually folded in both cases on the threshold of a lawsuit.
During questioning by Labor Senator Deborah O’Neill, Gordon Legal partner Andrew Grech told a Senate inquiry Thursday that there was no reason the government could not answer the committee’s questions.
The group case has been approved by the court, where Gordon Legal and Services Australia is now working to identify and process interest payments to victims.
“It would be impossible to see how the Commonwealth could legitimately uphold a claim,” Grech said. ‘Although technically this case is still on foot [due to the settlement scheme] it is not as if the parties can go back to court and deal with the issues again. ”
In a letter to the Senate inquiry claiming immunity of general interest, Secretary of Public Service Linda Reynolds said even though “the class action lawsuit has been resolved … not all potential claims” would be resolved through this legal process.
“This is because a significant number of class members opted out of class action lawsuits and are free to make their own individual demands if they wish,” Reynolds wrote, referring to about 680 people.
The former minister, Stuart Robert, first filed a claim for public immunity in July 2020. Robert originally mocked the Gordon Legal class action lawsuit when it was launched by the company and Labor’s Bill Shorten in September 2019.
Shorten said Thursday that the government’s refusal to be open about the scheme was shameful.
“Relying on immunity from the public interest, even after the class action is over, is extremely cynical and shameful and nothing less than a cover-up,” he said.
While the government claimed immunity of public interest in dismissing the costs of the Gordon Legal case, Services Australia simply refused to answer in the Victoria Legal Aid case, or “Amato”, which ended almost two years ago.
“It is not practical to calculate the cost of legal services in accordance with the OLSC approach to individual issues,” the agency said this month.
Despite the government’s refusal to disclose its own costs, Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes questioned the $ 8.4 million. Dollars in costs that Gordon Legal demanded Thursday.
She noted that money was deducted from an interest rate settlement of $ 112 million that will be paid to victims. Hughes also asked Grech why he had not taken the matter pro bono given his strong views on the scheme.
Grech said the court had noted that the costs were reasonable, the firm had worked at no charge and without charge and had also indemnified any costs that applicants would have to pay if they lost. “We are not embarrassed to be paid for the work we did,” he said.
Guardian Australia revealed in March 2020 that the government had privately admitted that it should be reimbursed to hundreds of thousands of victims, months before it was finally confirmed it would do it.
Committee chairman Green Senator Rachel Siewert said last week that “there was no longer an excuse to hide” the information demanded by demand.
Labor, the Greens and a number of welfare groups have called for a royal commission in the program.
“A royal commission or some form of independent inquiry at arm’s length from the government is needed,” Charmaine Crowe, a spokeswoman for the Australian Social Services Council, told the inquiry on Thursday.
Rowan McRae, executive director of Victoria Legal Aid, said on Thursday that an independent inquiry was needed.
Services Australia and the Department of Social Services are due to meet with the committee on Friday.
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