Making a complaint
In this section we will cover information on how to make an internal or external complaint regarding disability discrimination.
- Making an external complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
- Making an external complaint with your state or territory discrimination commission
You can explore your education provider's website for the relevant policy and processes to make a complaint. All education providers should have a mechanism to allow you to make a complaint.
We have listed the web links to the complaint mechanisms at all universities and TAFEs. If you attend an education provider which is not listed, here are some common search terms on your provider’s website including: complaints, feedback, grievances, appeals, concerns, harassment or discrimination. You can also contact your disability advisor, counsellor, student inquiries staff or student union.
Informal vs formal
In the first instance, the policy of your education provider will suggest you try to address the issue informally.
An informal complaint may be a discussion or email directly to the person or service area involved. This may include:
- your lecturer, facilitator or tutor
- a coordinator or administrator responsible for your study program
- a support person such as your disability advisor or student support officer.
If you are not comfortable with this then it might be a more senior person such as a training or course coordinator, Head of School or study program, College Head, administration manager, Faculty Dean etc.
If this option has been unsuccessful, or not an option you are comfortable with, then you can make a formal complaint within the internal process.
A formal complaint may require you to submit your complaint through a formal mechanism such as an online complaints form, or to an area of the education provider who manages complaints. This will be outlined in the relevant policy of your education provider.
For information on what to provide in your complaint visit our Your rights page and download the complaint letter template below.
Complaint letter template
You can choose to make an external complaint in the first instance without accessing internal processes through your education provider (although it is recommended that you do try to resolve complaints internally with your education provider first).
Using the Disability Discrimination Act
The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 is federal (Commonwealth) law and so applies all over Australia. It covers a broad cross section of participation in society for people with disability, which includes education. Accompanying the Act is the Disability Standards for Education, a set of standards to help or support the interpretation of the legislation.
Making an external complaint assumes that you’ve declared your support needs and requested reasonable adjustments from your education provider and that you have:
- been denied reasonable adjustments
- have received insufficient or inappropriate support to ensure that you can participate in your education on the same basis as other students
- experienced discrimination relating to your disability in relation to supports, education or enrolment processes, or
- attempted to reconcile the issues internally and are not satisfied with the outcome.
We suggest you use the ADCET letter template which follows a similar format to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) process to prepare your complaint in a succinct manner. Then you can cut and paste into the AHRC form, or attach.
The DDA allows for the appointment of a Disability Discrimination Commissioner and enables the Australian Human Rights Commission as the complaint handling body and conciliator.
You can find more information about the DDA and the DSE on our website.
Process for an AHRC complaint
There is no cost to submitting a complaint to the AHRC.
- Lodge a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission
The complaint must be in writing. You can download a word or PDF version or fill out an online form. To find and lodge a complaint on the AHRC website. If you are unsure if you can make a complaint or not and want to talk about it first, you can call the AHRC National Information Service on 1300 656 419 or by email. Additional contact information including translating, interpreting, and National Relay services can be found on the AHRC website.
Note: The Commission can decide not to investigate a complaint which has been lodged more than six (6) months after the alleged event/s happened. If the event/s being complained about happened more than 6 months ago you can outline the reasons for the delay in making a complaint to the Commission for consideration.
2. Investigation by the Australian Human Rights Commission
The AHRC will review your complaint to ensure that it relates to unlawful discrimination. If the complaint is not accepted the AHRC will explain why. They may contact you for additional information and a copy of your complaint will be sent to the respondent (who you are complaining about). The AHRC will ask for comments and other information from the respondent in an effort to resolve the complaint. The AHRC may talk to you about conciliation.
3. Conciliation occurs via the Australian Human Rights Commission
Conciliation is where we try to help you and the respondent, find a way to resolve the complaint. This means that the commission will work with you and the education provider to reach a resolution using their complaints process.
If conciliation fails then the complaint may be escalated to Federal Circuit Court or the Federal Court of Australia
You must escalate this to a court with legal or advocacy support if required within 60 days of the Commission finalising your complaint.
It’s important to note that even through the complaints process, the Human Rights Commission will not (is not able to) determine whether what happened to you is discrimination. Their role is mediation only. The determination of whether what occurred was discrimination can be made in a federal court. This part is at your own cost, usually, and court costs could be ordered against you if you lose. You should consider legal advice at this point and we have listed some options below.
Using the UN Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities
If you receive an unfavourable result in the Australian Federal Court, in limited circumstances you can escalate it to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. You may have heard of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. To escalate an issue to the United Nations it must have gone through all available domestic (Australian) remedies first.
The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will then look at it, if the requirements are met, including whether the state party (Australia) is systematically violating the convention. This option would be a last resort.
There is additional information about the Australian Human Rights Commission.on our website.
Some state/territory laws have been reformed or are arguably stronger to utilise for a disability discrimination complaint than others. For this reason, the table below provides links to state-based anti-discrimination commissions to give you multiple paths forward.
You should access the relevant state legislation where your education provider is located. You should make a decision informed by your personal circumstances and the relevant legislation available to you as to the best route to take.
You can find additional information about State Legislation on our website.
Additional information and links to state or territory legislation, and information on advocacy and legal services can be found on our website.
Some general tips
- Every state/territory has legislation which covers disability discrimination and there is an associated complaints process to follow. You can access fact sheets or call the relevant commission for additional information.
- Make sure you note the timeframes for making a complaint to ensure your complaint is not beyond their cut-off. In most all states the event must have occurred within 12 months of the first incident. In the ACT it can be up to 2 years. If it is beyond the designated timeframe your issue either needs to be an ongoing issue, or there were extenuating circumstances for not raising it sooner e.g., ill-health, or pursuing other jurisdictions.
- Currently there is also a severe backlog with both federal and state human rights commissions at the time of writing this and, in some circumstances, it may take up to six months to evaluate a complaint. This means that if your issue is more time-sensitive it may be better to pursue an internal complaint option first. Alternatively, you could submit both an internal and external complaint at the same time. Noting to your provider that you have done this to expedite the internal process and reducing wait times for external processes. You can choose to withdraw from either process at any time.
- At the time of writing this article, Queensland’s aged Anti-Discrimination Act (1991) is under review, with a final report due to the Attorney General in July 2022.
- Two states also have separate Human Rights Acts which cover the ‘right to education’ and link to the United Nations International Declaration of Human Rights. The Queensland Human Rights Act only covers primary and secondary education while the ACT Human Rights Act covers all levels of education. However, it is better to make a complaint using the relevant anti-discrimination act as you cannot access this pathway until you have exhausted other avenues.
You can access specific details of state and territory complaints bodies and anti-disability discrimination legislation on our website.
What format should I document my complaint in?
Your complaint should be factual, practical and propose solutions or outcomes that are reasonable and will enable ongoing access to your education in an ongoing manner.
Again, the complaint letter template provides a sound structure to help you organise your complaint, but each state will have slight variations. By using the template you can cut and paste into online forms or attach separately.
Make sure you keep a copy of your correspondence including date of submission.
Support to go through the process
While it is useful to have a friend or relative to assist, you may also need expert support.
Accessing counselling support either through your education provider or through your doctor is also recommended as the process can be stressful. It is okay if you decide at any point you cannot pursue the complaint to stop and you should feel that the process is within your control.
If you need advocacy support to get through the complaints process and are wanting to have some expert support to advocate for your rights, you could consider engaging with an independent advocate.
There are additional links under Advocacy and Networks.