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An Update on the Center for Taxpayer Rights

Posted on Nov. 23, 2020

It’s been a little over a year since the Center for Taxpayer Rights (CTR) began operations, and Keith, Les and I thought it might be a good time to give a short update on the Center’s activities over the last fifteen months. Soon there will be a new “button” on PT’s homepage, which takes you to the Center’s “donate” webpage … but more on that later.

Visitors to the Center’s website can learn about the International Conference on Taxpayer Rights, sign up for the Taxpayer Rights Digest, and learn about the amicus briefs filed on behalf of the Center by the Harvard Law School Federal Tax Clinic and others. We are committed to raising taxpayer rights issues in the courts via amicus briefs; the Center and LITCs are particularly well-situated to explain the impact of various holdings on low and moderate income taxpayers, analyses and consequences that might not otherwise be raised in litigation.

With respect to the International Conference on Taxpayer Rights, because of the pandemic we now have two conferences scheduled for 2021 – one in May 2021 which we are hoping we can physically convene in Athens, Greece, and one in October 2021, in Pretoria, South Africa (which was originally scheduled for this past October, but oh well, the pandemic intervened). The theme of the Athens conference is Quality Tax Audits and the Protection of Fundamental Rights; its agenda will be published in December. The theme of the Pretoria conference is Taxpayer Rights, Human Rights: Issues for Developing Countries; that agenda is now up for viewing on our website! Both of the 2021 conferences will be live-streamed, so we can expand our reach, not just because of the pandemic but also because we want more folks from less affluent countries, and young scholars or students, to be able to participate, albeit virtually.

Because we had to postpone the 2020 Pretoria conference, we decided to launch Tax Chat!, a monthly series of conversations between myself and folks from an array of disciplines who are working in the field of tax and tax administration. So far, we’ve had three Tax Chats! Our topics have included the International Observatory on the Protection of Taxpayer Rights; Taxpayer Rights, Human Rights, and Achieving Sustainable Development Goals; and the Anthropology of Tax. All of the Tax Chats! are recorded; you can access them on the Center’s YouTube channel. They really are interesting, and they really are a chat – no power points allowed, just a good conversation about tax.

You can learn about all this and get notifications about upcoming events by signing up for the Taxpayer Rights Digest, the Center’s newsletter. We promise not to clutter your email box; we’ll only communicate when there actually is news.

The Low Income Taxpayer Clinic Support Center When I was executive director of The Community Tax Law Project, I hoped to establish a national resource center for the growing Low Income Taxpayer Clinic movement, but my appointment as the National Taxpayer Advocate sidetracked that plan a bit.  Well, now we’re back on track – the Center has established the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic Support Center, which supports and encourages the expansion of Low Income Taxpayer Clinics (LITCs) domestically and internationally.  The idea for the LITC Support Center borrows on the practice in other areas of poverty law, which have established national support centers, including the National Consumer Law Center, the National Immigration Law Center, and the National Homelessness Law Center.  An LITC Advisory Board, drawn from the diverse LITC community and including representatives of academic, legal aid, and community-based LITCs, advises the Center on the type of support or research activities that LITCs could benefit from, including the development of training for new volunteers and conducting surveys to determine the needs of low income taxpayers.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the LITC Support Center’s activities is the establishment of the CTR Litigation Strategy Group. This group, with about forty members, meets weekly to discuss ongoing casework and litigation and to identify areas of law affecting low income taxpayers that might be ripe for challenge. The goal of the CTR Litigation Strategy Group is to help the LITCs to operate along the lines of a national law firm, working together throughout the circuits to litigate taxpayer rights and other issues affecting low income taxpayers. We started by focusing on aspects of the IRS’s implementation of Economic Impact Payments, which, as readers of PT are well aware, drew several significant challenges, including on behalf of incarcerated individuals; US citizen spouses and children of undocumented persons; and federal beneficiaries with dependent children. Attorneys for the plaintiffs in many of these cases are members of the CTR Litigation Strategy Group. On our weekly calls, we also have met with attorneys raising procedural due process issues in the context of federal benefits programs; we are identifying and developing potential procedural due process challenges in tax litigation. So … stay tuned!

Now, here is our “ask” …..

As readers of PT know, LITCs are central to ensuring two key taxpayer rights – the right to retain representation, and the right to a fair and just tax system. By providing pro bono representation of low income taxpayers and educating low income taxpayer about their rights and responsibilities, LITCs ensure that tax disputes are decided on the merits and not by default. Moreover, through litigation of cases, comments on regulations and IRS notices and initiatives, and articles, research, and conferences, LITCs ensure the tax law takes into consideration the facts and circumstances of low income and other vulnerable populations, not just the affluent or corporations.

Today, there are over 130 LITCs throughout the United States, receiving a total of approximately $12 million in IRS grants annually pursuant to IRC § 7526. To receive an IRS grant, LITCs must demonstrate a dollar-for-dollar match, in the form of either cash or in-kind contributions. One of the challenges for many LITCs, however, is the ability to raise matching cash funds. This is particularly the case for LITCs serving taxpayers in rural areas. While donated volunteer attorney, CPA, and Enrolled Agent time can count as an in-kind match, for many clinics located in rural states, there may be few volunteer tax professionals available.

To address these unmet needs, in 2021, the Center plans to establish the LITC Pro Bono Referral Network, which will build upon existing informal efforts for recruiting attorneys nationally and creating a database of willing pro bono volunteers with tax expertise. The Referral Network will also identify LITCs that are serving rural or vulnerable populations in need of pro bono attorney expertise not available in their service areas. The Network’s website will enable LITCs to request pro bono support, identifying the specific issue and the expertise required, and the Network will then connect the LITC to a qualified and available attorney. Attorneys who are uncomfortable litigating can sign up to provide technical advice and assistance to LITCs or can volunteer to help with training (virtually).

The Network will not only enable the provision of direct assistance to low income taxpayers in tax disputes with the IRS but it will also generate matching funds for the LITCs so they can request additional funding from the IRS. This additional funding, in turn, can be used to improve the direct delivery of service to low income taxpayers by funding more staff attorney time at the LITCs. A win-win for everyone.

This is where we need your help – up until now, the Center has run as an all-volunteer organization. But as we launch the LITC Pro Bono Referral Network, we need to contract programming services and secure data storage, and more importantly, we need a staff person to do the volunteer vetting, matching, answering questions, and general program duties for the Network.

So. Please help us expand access to legal assistance for low income taxpayers – we need your financial support to help us build the Network, and we’ll later enlist your volunteer efforts to protect low income taxpayers’ rights to retain representation and to a fair and just tax system. You can donate to the Center here.

Thank you!

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