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Steps To Implement Report On Relationship Test

Government Takes Steps To Implement Report On Relationship Test

The Ministry of Social Development agrees with most recommendations in an independent report on its interpretation of relationships “in the nature of a marriage’ under the Social Security Act, and is working to implement them, Associate Social Services and Employment Minister Ruth Dyson said today.

Ms Dyson released the report and the ministry’s response today.

She said the report showed that Work and Income had been using the correct legal test to determine marriage-type relationships since 2001. However, the correct test may not have been used in all cases between November 1996 and December 2000 where beneficiaries had to repay social security benefits after being assessed as living in a relationship “in the nature of a marriage’.

Auckland barrister Frances Joychild compiled the report at Ms Dyson’s request, after public concern about Work and Income’s implementation of a 1996 Court of Appeal judgement. The judgement, Ruka v Department of Social Welfare, stipulated that financial interdependence and emotional commitment were essential features of a relationship “in the nature of a marriage’.

Ruth Dyson said she was pleased that the correct legal test was now being applied and there was no suggestion of deliberate wrongdoing on the part of Work and Income staff.

“Determining whether a marriage-type relationship exists is one of the most complex tasks facing staff. However, the report’s findings cast some doubt on Work and Income’s correct assessment of these relationships between late 1996 and late 2000.

“The National Government made the situation more difficult by introducing legislation to overturn the Court of Appeal judgement, though it was never passed.”

Ms Dyson said that Work and Income was considering Ms Joychild’s recommendation to review all relevant cases between November 1996 and December 2000, and would report back to her by the end of March.

Ruth Dyson thanked Ms Joychild for the thoroughness of her investigation. She said the department agreed, in part or in whole, with most of the report’s 14 other recommendations, and had taken significant steps to implement them, including:

- updating staff documentation to reflect the prerequisites of financial interdependence and emotional commitment;

- contracting Women’s Refuge to train benefit investigators in understanding, recognising and assessing violence;

- developing a national protocol between Work and Income and Women’s Refuge to increase understanding of each other’s role in promoting the right of women and children to be safe from family violence and in improving their employment and social outcomes;

- having a senior investigator carry out or supervise all cases involving violence,

- having a senior investigator audit all files where an overpayment of over $5000 has been established;

- conducting a random 10 per cent audit of all other files every month;

- developing a legal training module dealing specifically with marriage type relationships and the concept of natural justice;

- developing an education programme specifically for benefit fraud prevention;

- holding regular meetings with specialist beneficiary advocate groups to discuss policy and operational matters;

- working with beneficiaries to ensure they understand the boundaries of a relationship.

The executive summary of Frances Joychild’s report is attached. Full copies of the report and the ministry’s response are available from the Ministry of Social Development, on the website: www.msd.govt.nz

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