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NDIS eligibility widened by Federal Court

Chris explores the landmark Federal Court case that lowers the bar for establishing permanence of disability.

By Chris Coombes

Updated 15 Apr 202422 Nov 2022

Over the past year, the spotlight has been on planning: cuts, independent assessments, and the rise in Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) matters. Backstage, access to the Scheme has quietly been widened for a whole new cohort of people.

Knowing who can access the Scheme matters. In the dry desert of virtually no support for NDIS-ineligible disabled people, the stakes around access to the NDIS feel particularly high. For providers, changes to who can access the NDIS might inform how they operate in the market. Those invested in the sustainability and reach of this world-class Scheme will also be paying attention.

This big – yet barely publicised – change to NDIS access came this year from a Federal Court decision known as NDIA v D. In late August, the Federal Court clarified the meaning of two words – “available” and “remedy” – as they relate to accessing the NDIS. So much more than a battle over the meanings of words, this decision widens the threshold of people eligible for the Scheme. Some disabled people who were previously unable to enter the NDIS are now able to do so.

Let me explain how.

Establishing that a disability is permanent

Before we look at the impact of the decision, it’s necessary to understand how disability permanence is established for the purposes of NDIS access. One eligibility criterion laid out in the NDIS Act is that an applicant has impartments which “are, or likely to be, permanent”.

When considering whether a condition is permanent, Rule 5.4 in the NDIA’s Becoming a Participant Rules requires the NDIA to confirm that “there are no known, available and appropriate evidence-based clinical, medical or other treatments that would be likely to remedy the impairment” (emphasis added).

Does the treatment need to be a cure?

 What the flip does “remedy” actually mean in NDIS-ese? And why does this matter to anybody who doesn’t work for the Oxford English Dictionary

What the NDIA thought “remedy” meant
In the past, the NDIA’s Operational Guidelines defined the word “remedy” to mean that a treatment would likely “relieve” someone’s impairment. After more dictionary checks than a game of Scrabble with grandma, the Federal Court took a different view.

What “remedy” actually means
The Federal Court decided that in this context, “remedy” actually means “something approaching removal or cure of the impairment”.

Why is this big? Showing the NDIA that a recommended treatment will not cure or remove the impairment(s) is a much lower bar, compared to showing that a recommended treatment will not relieve the impairment(s). Previously, the NDIA access team may have skimmed someone’s access request to see any if there were any unexplored treatments that might simply improve or relieve the impairments. But their actual task, according to the Federal Court, is to see whether these treatments would nearly cure or remove the impairment. This clearing up of “remedy” opens the doors to NDIS eligibility much wider.

Is the treatment really available if [insert barrier here]?

The Federal Court also heard much debate about the meaning of the word “available”. Once again, what it found has vast ramifications for people seeking access.

What the NDIA thought "available” meant
The second way this decision widened the doors to NDIS eligibility was in clarifying the word “available”. Previously, “available” treatment was interpreted to mean that there was a treatment which a person could theoretically access.

What “available” really means
The Federal Court clarified that “available treatment” means “what treatments an individual can, in reality, access”.

There are many reasons why someone can’t really access a treatment. The Federal Court offered examples of people who might not be able to access a treatment because of their mental health, geographic location, or proximity to treatment. In this particular case, the person told the Court and the NDIA that they could not afford the treatment.

Let’s zoom in on what this means for people trying to access the NDIS. One cohort the decision is likely to benefit is people with psychosocial disabilities. The Court gave a hypothetical example of someone with agoraphobia, which makes it psychologically impossible, or at best extremely difficult, to leave home. If this person wanted to access the NDIS, the NDIA now needs to consider what treatments are, in reality, available to them in their specific circumstances.

One could think of any number of other reasons why a person would be unable to access a treatment that would likely remedy their impairment. A person might be in prison or a closed setting that prevents them from leaving to obtain recommended treatment. A psychiatrist might have full waitlists. There are often psychological or physical barriers to taking medication. Or there may not be a local multidisciplinary pain clinic, even though attending one was recommended in a report.

These examples, like those offered by the Federal Court, need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Each person in this situation wanting to test access should seek legal advice from legal aid or an advocate (see links below). And the NDIA may still ask for loads of evidence to establish that a treatment is in fact unavailable. But because the court has invited participants to describe their treatment reality, the doors to support are now much more open.

Is this a means test?

In clarifying “available”, the decision raised some questions about the Scheme’s design. Since the NDIS is universal (meaning access is not based on a person’s income or wealth), the NDIA argued that the reinterpretation of “available” treatment to consider someone’s ability to afford treatment impacts the universality of the Scheme by effectively adding a means test in certain cases. The judge pointed out that this problem existed before NDIA v D even if the NDIA were using a broader interpretation of the word “available”. 

Why Federal Court decisions matter

In the legal world, the Federal Court is higher in the pecking order than the AAT. Unlike AAT decisions, Federal Court decisions set precedents, meaning that the NDIA and the AAT must follow them. However, the Agency doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to this point.

It’s still pretty difficult to access sex work through the NDIS, for example, even though the Federal Court deemed it a reasonable and necessary support for a participant. And we hear the NDIA’s stubbornness on the so-called three levels of transport, which the Federal Court found to be in conflict with the NDIS Act for Mr. McGarrigle in 2017, is still causing issues. Perhaps the new leadership will update guidelines and practices based on the learnings we have obtained from the AAT and Federal Court. Until then, it’s critical that people with disability, advocates, nominees, and providers are aware of this decision and their rights to review decisions.

The impact of NDIA v Davis should not be underestimated, as it has the potential to significantly expand the population eligible for NDIS support. This has already been a mammoth year for the NDIS. With the 10-year review announced, Scheme sustainability on the government’s mind, and legal pressure to expand the Scheme to new entrants, the new leadership has its work cut out. But it’s exciting times ahead for those who, thanks to this clarification, can access world-class supports for the first time.


NDIA v Davis – The Federal Court decision can be found here.

Chris is not a lawyer, and this is general information only. While great care was taken to ensure that the information above is accurate, every matter is unique. Please seek advice from legal aid here or your nearest NDIS appeals advocate here.



Chris Coombes

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