News and media releases

Using machine technology

04 December 2021

Clarification on claims in media in response to the ombudsman report ‘The new machinery of government: using machine technology in administrative decision-making’.

Statement from Revenue CEO Scott Johnston

Suggestions in the media the Revenue NSW garnishee process bears any resemblance to “robodebt” are wrong.

There’s a clear difference between the process for issuing garnishee orders and “robodebt”.

The analogy between the two is misplaced. Under robodebt, the automated system used by Centrelink generated erroneous debt notices based on flawed matching of Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and Centrelink data on the income of people who received social security benefits.

With the fines process at Revenue NSW there is no question of people owing the amounts specified in the notices they receive.

Some media articles have also claimed the number of garnishee orders issued leapt from 6905 in the 2011 financial year to more than 1.6 million in the year ending 2019.

This is misleading. The majority of the 1.6 million garnishee orders were not successful. In fact, only 32,000 were successful relating to 28,000 individual customers.

On average just $498 was recovered from an average outstanding debt of $2,088. In some instances, just one cent was collected as a protected amount, currently $536.90, must remain in a customer’s’ account. This was introduced in 2016 with the amount being reviewed in April and October each year.

We understand the impact garnishee orders can have on individuals and will refund garnished funds if a customer advises they are unable to pay for food or essentials, or if the repayments have put them in a financially difficult position. Refund applications are actioned as a priority and, if the customer is eligible, the refund is processed as quickly as possible.

We would never want our customers to be left with no money.

Revenue NSW has evolved from the organisation which existed when complaints were made triggering the initial investigation six or more years ago of which the Ombudsman report addresses.

Our approach to debt recovery is now more sophisticated and sensitive to the circumstances of customers. We made a number of changes including the introduction of a minimum protected amount in August 2016 and the adoption of a Hardship Policy in May 2019. In May 2019, the Ombudsman acknowledged these changes in his advice that the investigation into the initial complaints had been discontinued.

We are committed to protecting our most vulnerable people and directing them away from enforcement actions. The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and some systems automation was introduced in 2018 and improves the way we do this. Since then Revenue NSW has used AI to identify customers who may be vulnerable so they can be diverted from enforcement actions, including the issuing of garnishee orders. Far from causing people to be left without money in their bank accounts. AI has in fact enhanced our capacity to avoid acting in ways that may have an adverse impact on vulnerable groups.

The Fines Act 1996 does not permit enforcement action unless a person has not engaged with us at a number of points in the fines process. We also never seek to enforce a fine without first communicating with our customers to notify them of their fines and to offer them assistance or support to resolve their debts. A customer would receive at least three separate notices across 90 days before a garnishee order is considered. After an initial fine notification is sent, Revenue NSW will send a reminder notice on behalf of the issuing authority. If no action is taken by the due date on the reminder notice, an overdue fine notice will be sent. We also send email and SMS notifications to customers where we have these contact details on file.

In all our communications with customers we clearly explain the next steps Revenue NSW may take should a customer not engage with us about their circumstances, and this includes potentially having a garnishee order issued to recover the debt.

As was recognised by the Ombudsman and the legal opinion obtained, once various steps in the fines process have been exhausted in recovering a debt, Revenue NSW’s discretion to take no enforcement action is very limited.

While fines are a deterrent with more than 70 per cent of customers paying their fine on time, we are mindful of those who might be seriously impacted and do not have the means to pay in full straight away.

Help is available. By contacting Revenue NSW directly, we can discuss and progress numerous options to support our customers who are struggling to pay. Some of these options include establishment of manageable payment plans with zero interest and for those that are eligible participation in programs such as Work and Development Orders (WDO).

But we can only provide this support to our customers when they talk to us and tell us about their particular situation.

When this happens, we can help customers who may have previously felt helpless to feel empowered to manage their debt.

Revenue NSW will respond to the Ombudsman’s Report in the coming months.

Scott Johnston
Deputy Secretary

Chief Commissioner of State Revenue
Commissioner of Fines Administration