6.1 The ALRC has identified a number of issues relevant to the safety of victims of family violence in Commonwealth social security law and practice. This chapter considers how family violence may have implications in relation to how relationships are defined—for example, whether a person is considered to be a ‘member of a couple’ or ‘independent’.

6.2 As discussed in Chapter 5, a social security payment can only be made if the person is qualified and the payment is payable. Further, that a higher rate of payment is provided to singles than to a person who is a ‘member of a couple’ assumes that costs are shared between members of a couple and therefore it costs more for a person who is single. This principle forms part of the ‘bedrock’ of social security law in Australia.

6.3 Whether a person is a ‘member of a couple’ or ‘independent’ can affect a person’s qualification for a social security payment—for example, as an actual condition for qualification for Parenting Payment (Single) and Widow Allowance[1]—and the rate of a social security payment.[2] Generally, being regarded as ‘single’ or ‘independent’ attracts a higher rate of payment in recognition that living costs are higher for a person living alone. A decision that a person is a ‘member of a couple’ may result in the refusal, cancellation or reduction of his or her social security payments. It may also lead to a debt being raised against a person which may be pursued through court proceedings.

6.4 Family violence may be of particular relevance in determining whether a person is a ‘member of a couple’, ‘living separately and apart under one roof’, or ‘independent’. The way in which a decision about a person’s relationship status is made in the social security context, and the relevance of family violence in making that decision, is discussed below. The issue of family violence and debt is considered in Chapter 8.

6.5 The ALRC considers that relationships are inherently difficult to define, but recognises that the effect of family violence is not always considered in relationship decisions in the social security context. The ALRC therefore makes a number of proposals to ensure that the impacts of family violence are expressly considered in relationship decisions in social security law through amendment to the Guide to Social Security Law.

[1] Social Security Act 1991 (Cth) s 408BA (Widow Allowance), s 500 (Parenting Payment).

[2] Commonwealth Ombudsman, Marriage-Like Relationships: Policy Guidelines for Assessment Under Social Security Law (2007).