Tax clinic trial helping the vulnerable

By Harley Dennett

November 19, 2018

A free ‘tax clinic’ by Curtin University to help vulnerable people with their tax issues has shown promising results. The Perth-based pilot has caught the eye of federal Labor, which sees a need for something like community legal centres, but specifically for tax advice.

Modern systems and data sharing has allowed the Australian Tax Office to catch up with the kind of people who used to slip through society’s cracks.

That’s where people like Curtin tax lecturers Annette Morgan and Donovan Castelyn have been able to make a difference, opening up a new student-run tax clinic to help these unrepresented taxpayers with the issues.

Some of these taxpayers are being chased for a debt, or facing penalties for years of late return lodgement, and some are new Australian residents don’t know how to deal with taxes as they set up new businesses. Some of had previous hardship applications rejected by the ATO, but their issues remained unresolved. Many would have been headed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, where the taxpayer would have represented themselves, and adding to the tribunal’s existing workload.

“There didn’t seem to be as many opportunities for those in the tax accountancy profession who wanted to give back…”

While ATO’s Tax Help program can help unrepresented people navigate myGov to lodge returns, these clients are often need answers that can’t be provided by that program and these vulnerable taxpayers aren’t able to afford paid tax agent services.

Around 160 clients have come to the Curtin clinic in its first four months, initially from the university’s pool of students and workers, but increasingly those referred from other support services and also directly by ATO officials once they heard about the tax clinic trial.

“The Tax Office have been really helpful to the clinic over the last four months, providing contacts to assist clients … the help we’ve had is amazing,” Morgan told The Mandarin.

“These taxpayers … difficulties they’ve had in life, where tax has fallen to the wayside because there has been other more important issues to deal with. You’ve got a single dad with four kids, you’ve got a person who is living on the streets … things have got in the road,” Morgan says. “These are unrepresented taxpayers, we’re not taking business away from anyone.”

Local tax professionals have volunteered to supervise the students at the clinic, and law firms have partnered to provide pro bono court representation and bankruptcy advice for those who were already too deep in trouble.

Many of those now volunteering have wondered why there hasn’t been opportunities for tax accountants to give back like lawyers do with community legal centres.

Labor’s plan to expand trial to 10 universities

Labor’s shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh today announced that an elected Shorten government would expand the trial to 10 university-run clinics across the country, at an expected cost of $4 million over four years.

Leigh told The Mandarin he became interested in tax clinics when he was working at community legal centres as a law student. “I was struck moving into the shadow assistant treasurer portfolio that there didn’t seem to be as many opportunities for those in the tax accountancy profession who wanted to give back to do it in a way that lawyers are able to give back.”

Under the plan, the law would also be changed to allow clinics to register as tax agents in their own right, as well as providing Deductible Gift Recipient status to facilitate partnerships with experienced tax professionals and institutions.

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