Reflecting on the First Year of the Harvard Low-Income Tax Clinic

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Daniel Nagin, Faculty Director of the Legal Services Center & Veterans Legal Clinic of Harvard Law School, recently sat down with us to talk about how the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic there has fared in its first year. With financial support from the Boston Bar Foundation, the IRS, and the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust, and the donation of time and resources of members of the private bar, the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic aims to increase access to legal aid for low-income taxpayers with legal problems related to taxes.

One of the priority populations the Clinic serves is low-income veterans.  This year, tax attorneys from the Legal Services Center, Greater Boston Legal Services, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue and the IRS led a series of trainings at the BBA with the goal of recruiting pro bono attorneys to accept overflow cases from the Clinic. Nagin said over 35 attorneys and tax professionals signed on to our pro bono panel as a result of these trainings.  In October, the Clinic also arranged a lunch time program at the BBA with the National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson.

These are the questions we asked about the Clinic’s successes and plans for its future:

Q: How would you sum up the Clinic’s first year?

A: There has been tremendous momentum due to a number of intersecting forces. First, there are a substantial number of people who have tax controversies with the IRS and no recourse. Understandably, they feel intimidated, overwhelmed, and often they have no idea that there are defenses available to them. Another force has been the interest from the private bar. There are many attorneys looking to do pro bono work in the area of tax law. We are gratified to the BBF’s partnership in bringing these forces together.

Q: What plans do you have for the Clinic’s future?

A: We are seeing an increasing number of taxpayers with issues with the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, so that is one area of our work that we are trying to build out. In the future we hope to address not only federal tax issues, but related state issues. Unfortunately, like many other segments of the community, low-income veterans often have not only one legal problem but multiple legal problems. So, we also have a substantial number of clients who are referred internally at the Legal Services Center from the Veterans Legal Clinic to the Tax Clinic when they contact us about veterans’ law issues but also have tax issues.

Q: Why do you think there is such a need for this type of clinic in the community?

A: It is not uncommon for people who have tax problems to be afraid and unsure what to do—which can lead to people doing nothing and letting deadlines and opportunities to challenge IRS claims pass . Our mission is to eliminate barriers and increase access to help, to make it as easy as possible for people in these situations to get legal representation. The Tax Clinic is now on the list of resources that the Tax Court gives to pro se litigants, so we now have cases referred to us through the Court itself. While we’re not happy that there is such a depth of need in the community, we are gratified to play a role in helping to close the access to justice gap.

Q: Can you share a specific instance of the Clinic helping a taxpayer in need?

A: The Clinic recently completed representation of a disabled combat veteran who had almost $200,000 in tax liability, but it was the result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder issues that made it extremely difficult for him to function and that led him into extreme financial distress . The Clinic developed the record to highlight his financial circumstances and developed medical evidence to demonstrate his service-connected mental health issues. In the end, the IRS made the decision to waive nearly the entirety of the tax liability.  In another case, this one also involving a disabled veteran, the Clinic is fighting not only an incorrect IRS allegation that the client owes $500,000 in back taxes, but is also arguing that the IRS actually owes the client a refund as a result of seizing his funds to satisfy the incorrect liability.  In addition to its work on individual cases of low income taxpayers, the Clinic is pursuing numerous systemic reform efforts to improve tax procedures and tax laws that harm low-income taxpayers.

Q: Why would you encourage an attorney to get involved with the Clinic?

A: There is a tremendous unmet need in the community.  Our intake line is overwhelmed with clients seeking legal help who are unable to afford an attorney.  Joining our pro bono panel will ensure that we are matching the incredible pro bono energy from the private bar with the pressing need that exists in the community. The cases are also very meaningful. It’s a powerful experience to help someone challenge the IRS when that person would otherwise go without an advocate and be left to his or her own devices in a complex and intimidating matter.  The Taxpayer Advocate has done studies showing that taxpayers have a much higher success rate when they are represented.  Additionally these cases present opportunities to learn and deepen understanding of tax procedure and the tax laws.