A Report on Australia's National Tax Clinic Program

In this issue of the Taxpayer Rights Digest, we highlight the expansion of tax clinics to Australia.  Several years ago, an Australia Tax Office (ATO) official visited the IRS and met with me and Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) staff.  Among other issues, we discussed the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic grant program that TAS administers.  The ATO official found this concept very exciting.  A year or so later, Annette Morgan, of Curtin University, visited our office with her students and we, too, discussed the clinic concept.  Well, one thing led to another and Annette founded the Curtin University Tax Clinic and spearheaded discussions about a clinic pilot program with ATO.  I met with Annette and ATO officials in Sydney in 2018; Annette’s dedication to the concept was very clear.  Now there are ten such clinics throughout Australia, and as Annette discusses below, the Australian government has committed AUD $4 million over four years to the program!

It is really wonderful to see the tax clinic concept expand beyond the U.S. borders to provide assistance and representation to low income and other unrepresented taxpayers.  While the specific parameters of each country’s approach to clinic focus and eligibility may differ slightly, they all have one thing in common – a commitment to ensuring access to justice does not depend on ability to pay.

We are pleased to bring you Annette’s report on the current status of the Australia National Tax Clinic Program.

AUSTRALIA'S NATIONAL TAX CLINIC PROGRAM - by Annette Morgan

Overview

Australia’s National Tax Clinic Program (NTCP) is a government-funded initiative geared towards helping taxpayers who may not be able to afford professional advice and representation with their tax affairs.

This program is available to eligible individuals, small businesses, not-for-profit organisations and charities, and is administered by ten universities in each State and Territory of Australia.

Eligibility is assessed on the basis of need and a combination of personal and financial factors. There is no financial limit attached to who may apply for assistance. Eligibility requirements may vary between NTCP clinics in each State and Territory. For more information please refer to the particular clinic’s website enclosed below. 

Funding

The NTCP is currently funded through a closed, non-competitive grant process in which each of the ten universities can receive a maximum amount of AUD$100,000 per annum.

Following the successful pilot of the NTCP in 2019, it was announced that the initiative would receive additional funding in the amount of AUD$4,000,000 for the period of four years.[1]

Operation

Each clinic in the NTCP operates on an independent timeline in accordance with its institution’s requirements. More information on each clinic’s eligibility criteria and operation is contained below.  

However, a shared, two-fold purpose is inherent with all clinics under the NTCP umbrella. The primary purpose of a clinic involved in this program is the provision of timely, accurate and comprehensive advice to eligible taxpayers who require assistance with their tax affairs. This advice may include and extend to:

  • the provision of compliance support services such as tax return preparation and where appropriate, lodgement;
  • representation in tax dealings with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO);
  • advocating for change where a systemic or procedural issue has been identified in the course of handling a client matter or dispute; and,
  • educating taxpayers and stakeholders in respect of Australia’s taxation laws.

The secondary purpose of a clinic involved in the NTCP is to provide a supportive and instructional educational experience for its student participants. As an educational tool, the clinics strive to:

  • expose their student participants to the realities of tax practice and assist in the development of strong technical and communication skills;
  • develop within their student participants a sense of social justice and communicate the value of pro-bono work; and,
  • encourage their student participants to have a positive attitude and lasting impact on each client, participant, volunteer and staff member.

In seeking to achieve these outcomes, each clinic adopts the structure it deems most appropriate. An example of one such structure is contained in the clinic case study section below.

Clinic Case Study -- Curtin Tax Clinic

The Curtin Tax Clinic (CTC) was the first tax clinic in Australia. Founded by Annette Morgan (Clinic Director) and Donovan Castelyn (Clinic Supervisor) of Curtin University in early 2018, the CTC commenced its operation on 2 July 2018 with a view to providing Curtin University students with an opportunity to apply their knowledge of taxation law and accounting in a practical work environment and in doing so, assist members of the community with their tax-related issues.

The CTC, an initiative program in its infancy a mere 18 months ago, has now developed into what many regard as the archetype for pro bono tax advice and assistance in Australia.

The CTC operates as a boutique tax practice, assisting eligible members of the public on an almost full-time basis through the year.[2] The CTC offers a full suite of taxation services, including, but not limited to:

  • general and complex advisory work surrounding income tax, stamp duty, capital gains tax, residency and tax administration;
  • compliance support services such as prior year tax return preparation and where appropriate, lodgement;
  • representation in tax dealings with the ATO specifically through the dispute resolution and debt recovery channels; and,
  • education services for taxpayers and stakeholders in respect of Australia’s taxation laws through outreach programs and seminars.

Like most clinics, the distinguishing feature of the CTC is that eligible taxpayers receive competent and comprehensive taxation services from experienced tax professionals with the assistance of student participants at no cost.

During its first year of operation the CTC assisted in excess of 300 eligible taxpayers. Roughly translated, this equated to an approximate time value of work of AUD$500,000 and over AUD$1,400,000 in liabilities corrected or reduced

CTC has provided services to a large and diverse range of clientele since its conception in July 2018. The clinic also receives referrals from its network of community legal and service centres, charitable organisations and not-for-profits who require the CTC to assist with their clients.

The CTC has also forged several critical industry partnerships with boutique to mid-tier legal or professional service firms to ensure that all eligible taxpayers are provided with the best possible team to deal with their matter, if the matter requires further expertise. All services provided to CTC and/or their clients, by these organisations are on a pro-bono basis.

To date, response from the community, student participants and industry has been overwhelmingly positive. Moving forward, the CTC will seek to continue its expansion into regional areas of Western Australia and to assist those in the community who are in the greatest of need. The CTC is also pleased to see the NTCP expanded to and incorporated within other universities across Australia and looks forward to the continued growth of the NTCP.

A full report on the CTC’s performance can be found here: Annual Report.

Tax Clinics within Australia

Relevant information about each of the clinics in the NTCP is contained below. Arranged in alphabetical order:

Australian Capital Territory

New South Wales

Northern Territory

Queensland

South Australia

Tasmania

Victoria

Western Australia

[1]           See, Australian Treasury, Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2019-20 < https://budget.gov.au/2019-20/content/myefo/download/MYEFO_2019-20.pdf> at pg 283.

[2]           The CTC is generally open 5 days per week (from 9:00 a.m. – 16:00 p.m.) during Australia’s tax busy season: July through October, and 3 days per week outside of those times.

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