Making a difference for vulnerable people
22 Jun 2021
The Office continues to promote awareness and accessibility for communities in regional and remote areas, Indigenous, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, the homeless and prisoners. Following are a few examples from Casebook 2020 that resulted in positive outcomes for vulnerable people:
Public Trustee acknowledged role in communication confusion
Charlie’s father Fraser died. His mother Leah was appointed executor of the Will. Leah no longer had capacity to manage complex financial matters, so under an Enduring Power of Attorney the Public Trustee became her attorney for financial matters. Charlie’s brother Ryan was appointed substitute executor of the Will.
A car was bequeathed to Charlie in Fraser’s Will. There were multiple calls and correspondence between Charlie, Ryan and the Public Trustee over a period of 12 months relating to legally transferring the car ownership to Charlie. The matter was also raised in hearings in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
Charlie complained to the Office he was not able to sell the car, or pay for repairs to the car, because the Public Trustee failed to take steps to ensure the car was legally transferred into his name. He paid the registration fees for the car in recent years, and the family paid for legal fees in order to obtain advice about the matter and the Public Trustee’s responsibility in it. Charlie complained that the Public Trustee should reimburse him for the car registration fees and legal fees paid.
This Office investigated whether the Public Trustee’s handling of the matter was reasonable. The investigator found that as beneficiary of the car, Charlie would always have been liable for the car registration fees, and did not consider the Public Trustee responsible for those fees.
The Public Trustee acknowledged its role in the confusion about who was responsible for transferring car registration, stating in the internal review that it could have improved its communication with Charlie and his family to make matters clearer much earlier and provide more consistent information. The Public Trustee’s review stated that it would assist Ryan to finalise the transfer of the car at no cost to the estate.
Many members of the community have not experienced complex legal environments such as estate administration. Agencies have a responsibility to be customer focussed and help people to understand why particular actions are being taken.
Improving policy, procedure or service
Creating compatibility in systems to support vulnerable people
A statutory authority approved Ella’s financial assistance application for therapy services. She moved overseas. Ella understood the authority would make payments directly to her therapist after receiving his invoices for each session. A number of invoices had been submitted to the authority, but sending cheques by post meant payment was significantly delayed.
She corresponded with the authority about the payment delay and the resulting effect of delayed therapy. The authority advised her that its payment system did not allow for international electronic funds transfers. Ella complained to this Office.
This Office identified that international electronic funds transfers could be done by the authority’s shared service provider. The authority agreed to work with the service provider to make international funds transfers in Ella’s case, and for others in similar circumstances.
Proper application of legal requirements – International students
University refunds tuition fees for international students after visa refusal
Tanaka applied to study at a Queensland university and prepaid thousands of dollars in tuition fees.
A question on the course application form asked ‘Have you ever had a visa application rejected?’. Tanaka believed this question only applied to study visas and not a tourist visa that he was denied the previous year. On that basis, he answered he had not previously had a visa application rejected.
The university received information from the relevant department that Tanaka’s student visa was denied, and that he had previously been refused a tourist visa.
Following the visa refusal, Tanaka sought a refund from the university for the prepaid tuition fees.
The university advised Tanaka it was withholding the tuition fees as he provided incorrect and/or misleading information on his application. Tanaka complained to this Office.
This Office investigated whether it was reasonable for the university to deny a refund of Tanaka’s tuition fees in the circumstances, and whether the university’s policy about refunds and the application of penalties was reasonable and lawful. This Office considered the university’s policy did not appear to be in accordance with the Education Services for Overseas Students (Calculation of Refund) Specification 2014 (the specification). The specification allows for students who have been denied a visa and not commenced their studies to be refunded their tuition fees minus $500 or 5% (whichever is the lowest amount).
The application form’s visa question had also been misinterpreted in three other international student complaints to this Office. This Office suggested amending the question for clarity to, ‘Have you ever had any type of visa application rejected by any country?’
As he was unable to commence his studies due to the visa refusal, the university agreed to refund Tanaka the prepaid tuition fee minus a $500 administration fee, and amend the question about visa history on the application form. Tanaka was satisfied with the outcome.
Applicants in similar circumstances
The university stated that future refund applications by international students who have not been able to commence studies due to a visa refusal will be examined in accordance with the specification. In light of this statement, and the corrective action the university took in Tanaka’s case, the investigator considered that similar complaints to this Office, and to the university since the policy commenced in August 2018, should also be re-examined. The university agreed and refunded tuition fees (less admin fees) for the three students who complained to this Office. It also reviewed university records since 2018, notifying anyone who had not received a refund that the prepaid tuition fees decision had been reviewed and a refund would be processed.
Agencies need to ensure that their policies are clear and unambiguous before financial penalties are imposed. Customer feedback can be used to revise language and ensure communication is clear and contemporary.
University partially refunds tuition fees for transferring students
Two international students enrolled in the same postgraduate course, at the same university. They prepaid tuition fees for two terms. Both students successfully completed one term and then sought to change education providers. They applied for a refund of the tuition fees for the remaining
term they had paid for and not used.
Both were denied a refund based on a clause of the university’s Refund Policy relating to extenuating circumstances. Each student appealed the decision and was advised: ‘You paid one year’s tuition fees in advance prior to commencement – one year is equivalent to 2 terms or 8 standard six credit point units. To date you have only enrolled in 4 standard units. As you have advised that you are transferring to another provider, [amount] will be forfeited to the university.’
When the original decisions were upheld, they separately complained to this Office.
The university’s original decisions to deny the students refunds of unspent tuition fees were based on a misinterpretation of the Refund Policy and reliance on an incorrect clause relating to extenuating circumstances. The correct part of the university’s Refund Policy allowed a partial refund (full amount less an administration fee) to students who transferred to another provider after completing six months of their course. Both students had completed six months of study.
Flawed appeal process
While the university’s appeal decision addressed the correct part of the policy, there was no logical connection between the points regarding amounts paid and portions of the course completed, and the conclusion that fees were forfeited.
When rejecting the students’ appeals, the university did not address the issues they raised, but just repeated the original reasons provided. If an administrative process allows an appeal right, the person considering the appeal must consider and address the submission made when reaching an appeal decision. This did not occur in these cases. The appeal process itself was therefore flawed.
This Office recommended that both students immediately be given a partial refund of their tuition fees and other changes to the Refund Policy and appeal process to fix identified issues.
Further complaints regarding this specific topic led to this Office recommending the university review all similar appeal decisions relating to refunds. It accepted the recommendation, conducted the review and provided refunds to a number of other students.