High Court rules loans are not income

I’m surprised this issue has had to go to the High Court to find that loans are not income. Alarmingly, it took over eight years to resolve – if it isn’t appealed.

RNZ:  Solo mum’s loans were not income – High Court ruling

A solo mother of two has won her eight-and-a-half-year fight against the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), which unlawfully tried to argue bank loans and credit cards constituted income.

The Ministry was trying to recover $109,852 from the woman, who has name suppression and can only be identified as ‘Ms F’.

MSD claimed it overpaid her to that amount while she was earning a benefit between 2005 and 2010 because she borrowed from her mother, a finance company and the bank to stay afloat.

But in a High Court appeal released today, Justice Paul Davison ruled MSD was wrong to classify those sources of money as income.

“The bank loans did not truly add to Ms F’s resources as she was required to repay the funds she received,” Justice Davison wrote.

“Bank borrowings by use of a credit card have the same essential characteristics as a bank loan, in that credit card expenditure is to be repaid. Credit card spending is therefore a loan, and is not properly treated as income.”

Justice Davison said it was not for him reconsider the financial advice given to the Authority, only whether it “erred in law in its interpretation and application of what constituted income”.

“The Authority plainly preferred the evidence of the Ministry’s financial analyst and its preference for the evidence of a competing expert is not a matter for this Court to review,” Justice Davison said.

Justice Davison ruled that Ms F was entitled to costs.

More from Catrionna Maclennan at The Spinoff:  Winz is meant to help the vulnerable, not hound them through the courts

In what parallel universe would the agency charged with assisting our most vulnerable citizens cut a mother’s benefit because she borrowed money from her family and her bank to stay afloat?

In 21st century Aotearoa, that is how the Ministry of Social Development thinks it should carry out its job.

It established a massive debt against a woman who borrowed – and repaid – money while she was on a benefit. The ministry then spent years pursuing her to repay her benefit, as it said the loan money meant she was not entitled to state support.

The woman was forced to waste hundreds of hours providing details of her situation to MSD and explaining her finances, at the same time as caring for her children, studying for a degree and trying to start a business to support her family.

She lived outside Auckland at the time and owned a property, which she was trying to hang on to so that her children would have a home. She borrowed to buy paint for the property and to fix a leak to prevent sewage from running through the floor.

The benefit review form did not ask Ms F to list loans.

Ms F also provided detailed information to MSD showing that the loans had been repaid.

MSD’s argument was that the loans, even though they have been repaid, were “income” and accordingly disqualified her from benefit support.

The case went to the Benefits Review Committee and the Social Security Appeal Authority. The amount she was alleged to owe was adjusted several times, so that the figure ranged between $109,852.91 and $127,275.05.

The Social Security Appeal Authority ruled that two bank loans should not have been treated as income, but held that other loans were income and that Ms F should be required to repay $109,852.91.

But the High Court has now ruled that the loans are not income.

This could have wider implications. RNZ: Call for review into ministry’s penalities for beneficiaries getting loans

Lawyers and beneficiary advocates want an urgent review into the Ministry for Social Development’s (MSD) debt recovery programme.

Child Poverty Action Group spokeswoman Susan St John…

…said there was no way debt should ever have been considered a resource.

It was hard to know how many borrowers were affected by the lending restrictions, but Ms St John said every one of them suffered.

“It’s really like just opening up a can of worms.”

Auckland Action Against Poverty spokesman Ricardo Mernendez…

…said over the past few months he had met with many people who were also penalised by MSD for receiving loans.

“At least half a dozen – that’s just people who come to our office in Onehunga there will be many across the country who are in similar situations,” Mr Mernendez said.

Lawyer Catriona Maclennan…

…said the problems went beyond just loans classed as income, with systemic issues around the ministry’s pursuit of money from beneficiaries.

She said Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni should step in and immediately stop debt recovery cases that were before the courts.

But this could take some time.

Ministry of Social Development spokesperson Simon MacPherson said the ministry would be studying the court’s decision carefully and thoroughly and consider its response.

Ms Sepuloni said she would not be commenting until she received a report from ministry officials.

I’m surprised it has taken so long to resolve this.

IRD don’t treat loans as (taxable) income. MSD should never have considered loans as income affecting benefits.

Read the full High Court decision here: