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Child Support Appeals to the SSAT Confirmed as Like Opening a "Pandora's Box"
14 July 2014
Most cases that are ultimately heard and decided by the Family Law Courts tend to involve either parenting or property matters, though other more complex issues do periodically arise. Very occasionally, issues about Child Support come up. These cases are relatively rare because of the cost and delay associated with litigation. When they do, they usually involve a point of real interest for separated families and family lawyers alike.
In Australia, our system of Child Support is managed and administered by the Department of Human Services (Child Support) ("the Agency"). In summary, separated parents' liability to pay child support is calculated by the Agency conducting an administrative assessment of child support which factors in matters such as both parties' income, the ages of the children concerned, estimates of the costs of caring for children (age dependent), and the percentage of nights' care that each parent has. Because this initial assessment does not take into account either parent's individual circumstances, there are several internal review processes available within the Agency. Once those internal review processes have been exhausted, parties have the option to appeal to the Social Security Appeals Tribunal ("SSAT"). In some circumstances, parties can pursue Child Support issues in the Family Law Courts.
In the recent decision of Child Support Registrar & Ahern and Anor the Court examined whether, when reviewing a decision made by the Child Support Registrar, the Social Security Appeals Tribunal ("SSAT") has power to make decisions about the amount of child support payable by a parent for periods other than those that a review application relates to.
At first instance, the father applied to the Court to have a decision by the SSAT reviewed where the SSAT had made a decision about the father's income for child support purposes during time periods that were not included in the father's original review application. The new decision by the SSAT was less favourable to the father, because the SSAT found his income was higher in later years than in the time period his original application concerned.
The Court examined various sections of the Child Support Collection Act, and held that in reviewing a decision of the Child Support Registrar, the SSAT had all of the same powers available to the Child Support Registrar in making its decision, which included power to make decisions about child support in periods that were not part of the original application.
This decision is significant, because it confirms that when applying to the SSAT for a review of child support, parties are opening a "Pandora's box", because the result that comes from their application can take into account matters they did not contemplate as part of their application.
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