Chapter 2: Overview of the AAT

The AAT was established by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975 and commenced operations on 1 July 1976. On 1 July 2015, the Migration Review Tribunal, Refugee Review Tribunal and Social Security Appeals Tribunal were amalgamated with the AAT.

Our role and function

The AAT conducts independent merits review of administrative decisions made under Commonwealth laws. We review decisions made by Australian Government ministers, departments and agencies and, in limited circumstances, decisions made by state and territory government and non-government bodies. We also review decisions made under Norfolk Island laws.

Our functions, powers and procedures are set out primarily in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act, Parts 5 and 7 of the Migration Act 1958 and in social services legislation that confers jurisdiction on us.

Our jurisdiction

The AAT does not have a general power to review decisions. We can only review a decision if a law states that the decision can be reviewed by the AAT.

We can review decisions made under more than 400 Commonwealth Acts and legislative instruments. The types of decisions that we most commonly review relate to:

  • Australian citizenship
  • child support
  • family assistance and social security
  • migration and refugee visas
  • the National Disability Insurance Scheme
  • taxation
  • veterans’ entitlements, and
  • workers’ compensation under Commonwealth laws.

We also review a wide range of other decisions, including decisions about aged care, bankruptcy, child care services, civil aviation, corporations and financial services regulation, customs, education regulation, freedom of information, paid parental leave, passports, and security assessments by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

We can review decisions made under a small number of Norfolk Island laws, including decisions about building, land valuation and planning.

A list of Commonwealth and Norfolk Island laws, under which decisions may be made that can be reviewed by the AAT, is on our website.

Our powers

Merits review of an administrative decision involves taking a fresh look at the facts, law and policy relating to that decision. In most cases, we can look at new information that was not available to the original decision-maker. We consider all the material before us and decide what the legally correct decision is or, if there can be more than one correct decision, the preferable decision. We can exercise all the powers and discretions available to the original decision-maker. We have the power to:

  • affirm a decision
  • vary a decision
  • set aside a decision and substitute a new decision, or
  • remit a decision to the decision-maker for reconsideration.

Our outcome, program and purpose

The AAT has a single outcome specified in the 2017–18 Portfolio Budget Statements:

Provide correct or preferable decisions through a mechanism of independent review of administrative decisions that is accessible, fair, just, economical, informal, quick and proportionate.

We are a single-program agency.

Our objective is set out in section 2A of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act. In carrying out our functions, we must pursue the objective of providing a mechanism of review of administrative decisions that:

  • is accessible
  • is fair, just, economical, informal and quick
  • is proportionate to the importance and complexity of a matter, and
  • promotes public trust and confidence in the decision-making of the AAT.

We provide administrative justice for individuals and organisations seeking to challenge decisions that affect their interests and, more broadly, contribute to improving the quality of government decision-making.

Our organisation

The AAT consists of the President and other members who may be appointed as Deputy Presidents, Senior Members or Members. Their primary role is to hear and decide applications for review of decisions.

Applications made to the AAT are managed in one of eight divisions:

  • Freedom of Information Division
  • General Division
  • Migration and Refugee Division
  • National Disability Insurance Scheme Division
  • Security Division
  • Social Services and Child Support Division
  • Taxation and Commercial Division, and
  • Veterans’ Appeals Division.

A Deputy President may be assigned as the Head of one or more divisions. A Deputy President or Senior Member may be assigned as the Deputy Head of one or more divisions.

The President is responsible for the overall management of the AAT with the assistance of the Division Heads and the Registrar. Staff assist the AAT to carry out our functions.

The AAT also hosts the Immigration Assessment Authority, a separate office within the Migration and Refugee Division. More information about the Immigration Assessment Authority is in Chapter 5.

Figure 2.1 shows our organisational structure.

Figure 2.1 Organisational structure, 30 June 2018
Figure showing AAT organisational structure at 30 June 2018.

Members of the AAT

AAT members are appointed by the Governor-General on a full-time or part-time basis for a term of up to seven years. Members may be reappointed.

Qualification requirements for the various member categories are in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act. The President of the AAT must be a judge of the Federal Court of Australia. The other members may be:

  • judges of the Federal Court or Family Court of Australia
  • lawyers of at least five years’ standing, or
  • people with special knowledge or skills.

Members come from a diverse range of backgrounds with expertise in areas such as accountancy, disability, law, medicine, migration, military affairs, public administration, science, social welfare and taxation.

The President and Deputy Presidents can exercise powers in any of the AAT’s divisions. Senior Members and Members may only exercise powers in the division or divisions to which they are assigned.

At 30 June 2018, there were 296 members of the AAT. Table 2.2 shows the breakdown of the membership by category. Appendix 1 lists all AAT members at 30 June 2018, including the divisions to which each Senior Member and Member was assigned.

Table 2.2 AAT membership, 30 June 2018
President 1 (0) 1 (0)
Deputy Presidents

   Federal Court judges
10 (4)
    10 (4)
   Family Court judges
5 (2)     5 (2)
   Non-judicial   9 (2) 6 (0) 15 (2)
Senior Members 27 (10) 21 (6) 48 (16)
Members 68 (34) 149 (82) 217 (116)
TOTAL 16 (6) 104 (46) 176 (88) 296 (140)

President, Division Heads and Deputy Division Head

The President of the AAT is Justice David Thomas. He was appointed as a Judge of the Federal Court and as President of the AAT on 27 June 2017 for a term of seven years.

Table 2.3 lists the AAT’s Division Heads and Deputy Division Head at 30 June 2018.

Table 2.3 Division Heads and Deputy Division Head, 30 June 2018
Division Heads
Migration and Refugee Division Deputy President Jan Redfern PSM
Social Services and Child Support Division Deputy President Jim Walsh
Taxation and Commercial Division Deputy President Bernard McCabe
Deputy Division Head
Migration and Refugee Division Senior Member Dr Irene O’Connell

See Appendix 1 for profiles of the President, Division Heads and Deputy Division Head.

Staff of the AAT

The Registrar is a statutory office holder appointed by the Governor-General on the nomination of the President. In addition to assisting the President in managing the AAT’s administrative affairs, the Registrar undertakes functions relating to the management of applications conferred by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act and other enactments. The Registrar is Sian Leathem, who began a five-year appointment on 7 April 2015.

During 2017–18, the President, the Division Heads and the Registrar were assisted by five officers in Senior Executive Service positions. Table 2.4 lists the SES employees at 30 June 2018. For information on their areas of responsibility, see Figure 2.1.

Table 2.4 Senior Executive Service employees, 30 June 2018
Executive Director, Corporate Services Jacqueline Fredman
Executive Director, Registry Operations Elizabeth Connolly
Executive Director, Review Support Bernadette Ryan
Executive Director, Strategy and Policy Christopher Matthies
Senior Reviewer, Immigration Assessment Authority Sobet Haddad

Other staff are employed under the Public Service Act 1999 as ongoing, non-ongoing or intermittent employees. At 30 June 2018, there were 660 staff under the Public Service Act. See Chapter 4 and Appendix 2 for more detailed staffing information.


District Registries

Applicants and other users are able to access the AAT through registries in each state capital city and in the Australian Capital Territory as well as through arrangements for the provision of registry services on Norfolk Island. We provide services to users in the Northern Territory from our other registries.

Staff in our registries:

  • process applications and facilitate the listing and conduct of alternative dispute resolution processes and hearings
  • liaise with parties and representatives about their cases and give them information about our operations and procedures, and
  • provide administrative and other support services to registrars and members.

Conference registrars conduct the majority of the alternative dispute resolution processes held by the AAT in the Freedom of Information, General, NDIS, Taxation and Commercial, and Veterans’ Appeals Divisions. Case assessment registrars and caseload practice managers undertake early case assessment and triaging of different types of applications in the Migration and Refugee Division and the Social Services and Child Support Division. At 30 June 2018, dedicated national teams provided caseload support and legal services for the Migration and Refugee Division and member support services for the Social Services and Child Support Division.

Principal Registry

Principal Registry staff advise and assist the President and the Registrar in managing the AAT’s administrative affairs, and also provide services to members and staff. They are responsible for business support, corporate legal and policy support, financial and human resource management, library and information services, strategy, communications and governance support and technology services.

Our processes

The AAT’s processes vary according to the type of decision we are reviewing. The differences reflect procedural requirements set out in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act, Migration Act and social services legislation as well as case management approaches we have developed to deal with the broad range of decisions we review. The main features of our procedures are outlined below.

Our procedures are intended to give an applicant, and any other party to a review, a reasonable opportunity to present their case. While parties may elect to be represented or assisted by a lawyer, migration agent or other person, a significant proportion of parties represent themselves and we have designed our procedures to facilitate their participation in the review. Details of the accessibility measures we employ, including the use of interpreters, are in Chapter 3.

Steps in a review

When we receive an application that meets the application requirements, we notify the decision-maker who must give us a copy of the decision and all of the documents they hold that are relevant to the review. In divisions other than the Migration and Refugee Division, the decision-maker must also give a copy of these documents to the applicant and any other party. In the Migration and Refugee Division, the applicant may request a copy of the documents we hold in relation to their review.

In the Migration and Refugee Division and the Social Services and Child Support Division, the decision-making Department does not take part in the review. In the other divisions, the decision-maker is an active party.

A key feature of merits review is the opportunity for the applicant and any other party to give us new information to consider in the review. At different stages of the review process, we may invite or direct a party to give us information that will be relevant to the case. The AAT also has the power to require non-parties to give us documents that are relevant to a review.

In some types of reviews, we hold conferences or directions hearings to talk to the parties about the issues and give directions about what the parties must do and by when to progress the case. When a review involves more than one party, we usually help them try to reach an agreed outcome without the need for a hearing, while ensuring steps are taken to prepare for a hearing in the event it cannot be resolved by agreement. As well as conferences, we use other types of alternative dispute resolution processes to resolve cases by agreement, including conciliation, mediation, case appraisal and neutral evaluation. In other types of reviews, the case is listed directly for a hearing.

The hearing gives an applicant, and any other party, an opportunity to provide evidence and present arguments about the decision under review. It also allows the AAT to ensure that all issues arising in the review are addressed. A hearing is conducted by the member or members directed by the President to constitute the Tribunal for the purposes of the review. The Tribunal may be constituted by one, two or three members but most reviews are conducted by a single member. The Tribunal is not bound by the rules of evidence and aims to conduct hearings with as little formality and technicality as is appropriate in the circumstances.

Hearings are held in person, by telephone and by video-link. They are conducted in public, unless the Tribunal directs that a hearing be held in private or legislation requires a private hearing. Hearings must be held in private in refugee cases in the Migration and Refugee Division, in applications for review of Australian Security Intelligence Organisation security assessments, and in all cases in the Social Services and Child Support Division.

Following the hearing, the Tribunal makes a decision on the review and must give reasons for that decision. The decision and reasons may be given orally on the day or they may be sent in writing at a later date.

Directions, guides and guidelines

We prepare and publish a range of policy and procedure documents, designed to help parties and their representatives understand our processes and what is expected of them during a review.

The President issues practice directions and jurisdictional guides which explain the procedures that apply for particular types of applications. Other presidential directions and guidelines deal with particular aspects of our operations such as the allocation of cases to divisions, how the Tribunal is constituted for a review and the use of expert evidence. We have also developed process models that describe the stages of our alternative dispute resolution processes. Fact sheets are prepared to provide more targeted information in relation to particular types of cases.

The full suite of practice documents and fact sheets is on the AAT website.

Additional functions conferred on AAT members

As well as performing their role under the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act, members may, in their personal capacity, exercise powers under a range of other Acts.

Warrants, controlled operations and other functions

Members who meet the qualification requirements in the relevant legislation may be nominated by the responsible Minister to:

  • issue telecommunications interception warrants, stored communications warrants and journalist information warrants under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979
  • issue warrants and exercise related powers under the Surveillance Devices Act 2004
  • issue examination notices under the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Act 2016
  • issue delayed notification search warrants and vary controlled operations authorities under the Crimes Act 1914
  • make continued preventative detention orders under the Criminal Code Act 1995
  • issue notices relating to investigations by the Fair Work Ombudsman under the Fair Work Act 2009
  • make orders allowing information given to the Inspector of Transport Security to be disclosed to another government agency under the Inspector of Transport Security Act 2006
  • issue monitoring warrants and exercise other powers in relation to the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967, and
  • issue search warrants and exercise related powers under the Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011.

For some of these functions, only the President and Deputy Presidents may be nominated to exercise the power. For other functions, Senior Members and Members enrolled as a legal practitioner for at least five years may also be nominated.

All members are authorised to exercise a range of powers relating to monitoring providers and compliance with student visa conditions under the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 and the Migration Act.

Table 2.5 shows the number of occasions on which members considered applications under any of the above Acts over the past three years.

Table 2.5 Applications relating to warrants, controlled operations and other functions, 2015–16 to 2017–18
2015–16 2016–17 2017–18
Number of occasions on which applications considered 2,849 2,751 2,440

We are flexible in performing these functions and members are available outside standard business hours. In the reporting period, 183 out-of-hours appointments were held.

In a proportion of applications, the issue of a warrant or other authorisation is only granted after further information is provided at the request of the authorised member. A small number of warrant applications are refused, and some are only granted after conditions are imposed, including conditions in relation to privacy. In some instances, the warrant is issued for a lesser period of time than that sought by the law enforcement agency.

Proceeds of crime examinations

The President, any Deputy President, and any Senior Member or Member enrolled as a legal practitioner for at least five years, may be appointed by the responsible Minister as an approved examiner under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 or the Proceeds of Crime Regulations 2002. Approved examiners are authorised to issue examination notices at the request of the Australian Federal Police and to oversee compulsory examinations in connection with confiscation proceedings.

Table 2.6 shows the number of examination sessions conducted by members in the last three years.

Table 2.6 Examinations held under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, 2015–16 to 2017–18
2015–16 2016–17 2017–18
Number of examination sessions held 49 114 70

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