Access to social security resources is vital to many women who are attempting to be free of an abusive relationship. When it is unclear to the Department of Social Security if the victim/survivor is still in a relationship with the perpetrator, the “couple rule” is used to decide her access to social security payments. The couple rule in social security law (Social Security Act 1991 (Cth), s. 4(3)) ties women’s access to social security payments to the income and assets of the perpetrator in circumstances where she is determined to be in a relationship with him. Therefore, if an applicant is assessed as being a member of a couple, her own and the perpetrator’s income and assets will be assessed jointly. This may lead to the victim/survivor being denied payment or, if it is later determined that she has not declared her relationship, could result in an overpayment debt and/or criminal prosecution for social security fraud.
In the application of this rule, domestic violence is rarely treated as an exception. This can financially entrap victims/survivors in a violent relationship, as they are denied independent social security support at the vulnerable time when they are attempting to permanently separate from the perpetrator. Research has shown that women who experience domestic violence are more likely to go on to experience poverty and disability after the abusive behaviour has ended (Cortis & Bullen, 2015; 2016). The couple rule may increase the risk of victims/survivors experiencing poverty.
Further, the rule is used by perpetrators to intimidate victims/survivors by perpetuating economic dependence, ingraining financial and systems abuse, and also by threatening to separate them from their children through imprisonment for social security fraud.