It is a criminal offence to intentionally provide false information to Centrelink in order to obtain a payment, to continue to maintain a payment, or in order to receive a higher payment where a person is not otherwise entitled to it.
Services Australia, in circumstances where it suspects unlawful conduct has occurred, can pass on a person’s details to the Commonwealth Department for Public Prosecutions who can commence a criminal prosecution against the person.
This criminal process is not to be confused with the process Centrelink undertakes when recovering a debt from a person who has unknowingly received an overpayment, for example. A prosecution can result in court proceedings, a criminal conviction, and a penalty being imposed. For that reason it is important for a person to obtain legal advice should they receive notification of a criminal investigation or charge.
Most Centrelink related criminal offences are contained in the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) [see for example s 134.1(1) – obtaining property by deception; s 134.2(1) – obtaining financial advantage by deception; s 135.2(1) – obtaining a financial advantage].
The maximum penalties for such offences can be as severe as up to 10 years imprisonment. As these cases are often complex and can involve significant penalties, obtaining early legal advice is recommended.
There is no requirement to attend a "prosecution interview"
When determining whether to prosecute a person for unlawful conduct, Centrelink may request that the person attend a prosecution interview. It will be a prosecution interview (as opposed to an assessment interview) if Centrelink provide a warning that anything the person says may be used against them in a court of law and that the interview will be taped.
The prosecution interviewer may suggest that there is no need for the person to attend the interview and to just "send them a letter" instead. In these circumstances Centrelink should be advised that the person is seeking legal advice.
There is no explicit legal obligation to attend or remain in a prosecution interview.
If a person does decide to attend, they can walk out at any point that they wish. No penalty can be imposed on them for not attending such an interview, or for stopping it once it has begun. Their current payments cannot be stopped for refusing to attend a prosecution interview.