The Philip C. Cook Low Income Taxpayer Clinic is paving the way for how clinics will interact with clients as social distancing is continually encouraged. On June 16th, the clinic hosted its first virtual IRS Pro Bono Day.
The clinic works with the IRS to have a pro bono settlement day each semester. It allows Georgia residents with upcoming Tax Court dates to access free legal representation from the clinic as they discuss their case with IRS attorneys on site.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tax Court suspended in person appearances for several months. This event allowed some of those cases to get settled ahead of their court date, helping the IRS avoid a huge backlog.
“That was why it was the IRS’ initiative, they wanted to try doing a settlement day virtually to see how it would go, and it went well,” said Ted Afield, Director of the Philip C. Cook Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic.
Three students with the clinic helped settle four cases. While it’s not as many cases as they see during their fall and spring events, Afield says it’s not a surprise since it was held mid-week and required the taxpayer to have access to the technology necessary to take part. Being held virtually also presented some extra challenges.
“One of the cases the IRS’ computer completely crashed, so it halted things for a bit,” Afield said. “It didn’t stop the matters from proceeding but it was a technological challenge we wouldn’t have otherwise had.”
While it might have taken more time to get each case settled as they adjusted to incorporating the technology, the pro bono day still was able to do its intended mission. It allowed the clients to settle their cases and the students to function as independent attorneys.
“I was pleased that we were able to preserve that type of experience, because while that’s a scary experience for the students, it’s also the most educational and rewarding,” Afield said. “They’ve shown they can do a very good job with it.”
It’s among the first virtual pro bono days to be hosted by a Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic around the country, but Afield expects this to be a trend and is prepared to host virtually again in the fall.
Written by Mara Thompson