Posts Categorized: Public Service

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.

The Importance of Reentry Education

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The New York Times Editorial Board recently gave their input on the issue of giving former inmates a fair shot when they leave prison, in a weekend editorial entitled “Labels Like ‘Felon’ Are an Unfair Life Sentence.” Their stance is evident from the headline, but the piece makes a series of compelling arguments for making it easier for convicts to rejoin society.

At the BBA, we run a series of workshops on civil legal issues through the BBA Reentry Education Program to help make probationers aware of the resources available to them. In light of the Times piece, we caught up with Lizbeth Ginsberg from Greater Boston Legal Services, who recently led a BBA Reentry Education Program session with participants in the CHOICE program on public benefits.

CHOICE is an intensive probation supervision program in the Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court. CHOICE offers young adult probationers the opportunity to pursue either educational or vocational goals as an alternative to incarceration.

Here is what Ginsberg had to say:

“I think it is important to do outreach to folks dealing with re-entry issues to give them information about benefits for which they may be eligible and which may provide critical support.  I was also glad to see that some of the Committee for Public Counsel Services attorneys were very engaged and asking questions. My hope is that they’ll hold onto the information for future clients so that it might benefit other folks in addition to the CHOICE participants who were there for the presentation.”

Later this month, volunteer attorneys will hold a workshop on finding affordable housing for federal probationers who have recently left prison.

The Ins and Outs of Serving on a Charitable Board

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The BBA Tax Exempt Organizations Section’s annual Charitable Board Service Workshop always draws a crowd, and this year was no exception.

The day was broken into two panels, the first of which discussed different types of board membership and traits that are desirable in a board member. The heads of three local nonprofits shared insights about the importance of an organization’s mission, how various boards are composed and what the role of a charitable board typically entails.

After lunch, attorneys who serve on boards of local charitable organizations spoke about their responsibilities. Nora Mann, Deputy Division Chief of the Non-Profit Organizations/Public Charities Division of the Attorney General’s Office, spoke about compliance issues, including appropriate documentation and filing tax forms.

Attendees were urged to check out the 17th Annual Board Connection hosted by the United Way on May 12 from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Click here for more information.

BBA Volunteers Clean That Dirty Water

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The BBA is all about giving members an opportunity to give back to the community as attorneys, using their expertise in the legal profession to benefit those who need it. But we also love to see them give back simply as Bostonians, like this group of attorneys did at the Annual Charles River Cleanup.

Kate Swartz, Co-Chair of the New Lawyer’s Section Public Service Committee, said the turnout was great and all of the attorneys had a great time clearing trash and debris from the banks of the Charles.

Volunteers from the BBA New Lawyers Section and Environmental Law Section, as well as the South Asian Bar Association of Greater Boston made up the team. Over 3,000 volunteers participated in all, from organizations based all over the city.

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If you are interested in upcoming volunteer opportunities, check out these events:

Volunteer on the Farm: The Food Project Serve & Grow
Saturday, May 7, 2016 9:30 AM to 12:30 PM

 Spring Woodland Restoration Event at Roslindale Urban Wild
Friday, May 13, 2016 9:30 AM to 12:00 PM

Governor’s Chief Legal Counsel and Executive Director of JNC Speak to Public Interest Leadership Program

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On April 13th, Lon Povich, Governor Baker’s Chief Legal Counsel, and Sharon Shelfer Casey, Executive Director and Deputy Legal Counsel of the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) addressed the BBA’s Public Interest Leadership Program. The JNC is a non-partisan, non-political Commission composed of volunteers from across the Massachusetts that have been appointed by the Governor. Historically, the JNC established through executive order, and the present JNC was established though Governor Baker’s Executive Order No. 558.

Mr. Povich and Ms. Shelfer Casey provided an in-depth description of the history of the JNC though various administrations, the minimum qualifications for various judgeships, and the application process for a judgeship. A key point that Mr. Povich made throughout the meeting was that of the immense amount of time and effort it takes on the part of the JNC to review applications. While nominated by the Governor, the JNC is a volunteer commission, and Ms. Shelfer Casey noted it is not unusual for the time commitment to be upward of ten hours per week. They ended the discussion with some insights to the nominating process in the upcoming months with the unprecedented number of vacancies expected in the Supreme Judicial Court.

The BBA would like to sincerely thank Lon Povich and Sharon Shelfer Casey for taking the time to speak to our PILP class!

When Justice Has Not Been Done: Post-Conviction Relief for Noncitizens

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To best serve clients that are noncitizens seeking post-conviction relief, lawyers need to combine skills typically associated with different kinds of practice. There’s dealing with evidence – a skill crafted by going to trial – as well as an in-depth knowledge of the appeals process and how it might work in a client’s favor.

At a recent program, CPCS’s Benjamin Selman and Laura Mannion, from Banwarth & Associates, spoke to a room full of attorneys about common issues faced by noncitizens with criminal convictions, and the unique paths lawyers take to post-conviction relief in such cases. They focused on seeking a new trial for the convicted individual. Mannion cited lack of knowledge about the American judicial system and inadequate access to legal counsel as factors that work against noncitizens in court.

Mannion and Selman spoke about proving that “justice may not have been done” during the original trial, which is the language used in Massachusetts Criminal Procedure Rule 30(b). They  went over strategies to prove that the client did not receive justice, such as arguing that certain pieces of evidence should not have been admitted, or that the outcome of the trial would almost certainly have been different if the attorneys involved had not made errors.

Are you interested in other programs related to immigration? Check out these upcoming programs below:

The Treacherous Road to a Global Workforce: The Intersection of Export Controls, Employment, Immigration and Data Privacy Laws (CLE)
Wednesday, May 18 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Family-Based Immigration Basics
Friday, June 3 from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m.

BBA Volunteers at Greater Boston Food Bank

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Last week, eight BBA members joined a group of other volunteers at the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) to pitch in sorting and packaging food.

The Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) is the largest hunger-relief organization in New England, and among the largest food banks in the country. Last year, they distributed more than 54 million pounds of food, enough to provide healthy meals to over 500,000 people

The GBFB also sees over 25,000 volunteers annually. Some help sort the food, like the BBA group did, while others help distribute the food to agencies and individuals and families who need it.

We are grateful to the GBFB for having us! Our volunteers had an amazing experience. If you are interested in more volunteer opportunities with the BBA, here is what we have coming up:

Annual Charles River Clean Up
Saturday, April 30, 2016 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM

Volunteer on the Farm: The Food Project Serve & Grow
Saturday, May 7, 2016 9:30 AM to 12:30 PM

Spring Woodland Restoration Event at Roslindale Urban Wild
Friday, May 13, 2016 9:30 AM to 12:00 PM

Retired, Esq: Access to Justice Fellows Offer Vital Pro Bono Expertise

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Legal Services organizations need attorneys. Attorneys looking for pro bono work need the time and resources to complete it. One way to bridge that gap is to recruit retired lawyers into partnering with legal services organizations on important projects related to improving access to justice.

That’s how the Access to Justice Fellows Program was born.

A program run by the Lawyers Clearinghouse in collaboration with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Access to Justice Commission, the Access to Justice Fellows Program pairs attorneys who have retired or are approaching retirement with organizations who need their services.

Here’s a snapshot of their five years of pro bono work, which Program Director Mia Friedman presented at a panel on the program hosted by the BBA’s Delivery of Legal Services section this week:

  • 7 fellows participated during the program’s first year
  • 19 fellows are now active in the Access to Justice Fellows program
  • 55 fellows have participated in the program over five years
  • They have completed at least 40,000 hours of legal work

Program Director Mia Friedman said most of the attorneys who participate choose to stay with their project for longer than the mandatory commitment of one year. The work done by attorneys in the program varies greatly, from immigration and tax-related matters to probate and family cases. They work for 10-20 hours per week with the organization to which they volunteer their services.

“One of the important aspects of the program is the monthly lunches” where attorneys in the program get together, Friedman said. “It has developed into this wonderful exchange of ideas and a real sense of community between the fellows.”

To learn how you can get involved with the Access to Justice Fellows program, please visit http://www.lawyersclearinghouse.org/access-to-justice-fellows/.

Chief Justice Ordoñez Weighs in on Importance of LAR at Probate & Family Court Training

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On Tuesday, Probate and Family Court Chief Justice Angela Ordoñez greeted attendees at a Limited Assistance Representation (LAR) workshop aimed at preparing attorneys to represent clients on a limited basis in a probate or family law case.

LAR is a useful tool for clients who might not otherwise have access to legal representation. Rather than paying a large sum as a retainer, they can hire an attorney for one particular motion or hearing, after which the parties can choose to go their separate ways or draft another agreement concerning the next steps.

The only problem with LAR, Chief Justice Ordoñez said, is that not enough people know they have access to it.

“Let people spread the word to their friends, their cousins, their family and all of that. If you spread the word about LAR, you’ll help the court, you’ll help the client and you’ll help yourselves. I see people every day who have no idea what LAR is,” she said.

Panelists Ilene Mitchell (Probate and Family Court Administrative Office) and Laura Unflat (The Law Office of Laura M. Unflat) spoke to attendees about their experience practicing LAR and answered questions about cases that the attorneys in the audience were already working on.

If you’re interested in learning more about LAR, including how to get certified to practice, our next training on April 28 will focus on LAR in the Boston Municipal and District Courts.  Click here to learn more.

Representing Low-Income Taxpayers: A Recap

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Last week, we wrapped up a three-part series of pro bono trainings geared toward helping to build the first ever low-income taxpayer pro bono panel of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School and Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS).

Over the course of the series, attorneys learned about the IRS collections timeline, a client’s right to due process, and the best tactics for removing levies and liens. They also learned about working out payment agreements and other alternatives to full collection of back taxes, and how to best resolve a dispute stemming from an audit.

Expert attorneys as well as IRS representatives made up the panels for these trainings. Over the course of three programs, over 35 attorneys and tax professionals signed on to work with the low-income taxpayer pro bono panel.

We reached out to Keith Fogg, the Director of the Federal Tax Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, and Luz Arevalo, a senior attorney at GBLS, to ask about the major takeaways of the program.

“Legal representation for all taxpayers most obviously helps the taxpayer represented, but it also serves as a check that improves our system of taxation. Working families will avoid much frustration and heartache if they respond promptly and correctly to a tax audit notice. Having an advocate involved early in the process will often translate into quick resolutions of the case.

I believe a paramount principle in taxation is Fairness. This principle is preserved by insuring access to legal representation.”

–Luz Arevalo

“An important takeaway from the most recent training is that the failure to respond to notices from the IRS or the MA Department of Revenue leads to dire consequences including not only a debt but also the loss of a driver’s license or a passport.  The government has created a process of auditing that is very automated and efficient for them.  Low income taxpayers, who will frequently shrink from responding out of fear of the unknown, need resources to assist them in responding and working with the system.  The National Taxpayer Advocate for the IRS has developed statistics showing much higher rates of success by represented taxpayers in the audit process.  The program sought to encourage and enable representatives provide much needed pro bono assistance.

As a new clinic and as a clinic partnering with GBLS, it is important for Harvard to co-host this program in order to help build a cadre of representatives willing and prepared to assist our clients when we reach capacity to assist them with the resources available in our clinic.”

–Keith Fogg