UNB Law Tax Clinic | News and Events | Spring & Summer 2021 | NEXUS Magazine | The Faculty of Law | UNB

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UNB Law Tax Clinic: Experiential learning that makes a difference

For the third straight year, the UNB Law Tax Clinic opened its doors to the UNB community, educating students on aspects of the Canadian personal income tax system and helping file income tax returns, free of charge, for students and their families.

The founding of the clinic

Samer Alam (JD ’20) was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the clinic, discussing the idea with Prof. Vokhid Urinov—the law school’s resident taxation expert—during the 2018-19 academic year.

“Samer was very enthusiastic about the project,” said Urinov. “I said ‘sure let's do it.’ We tested the idea informally that year and discovered a huge demand for this service among the UNB student community. They just wanted help understanding their rights and obligations as a taxpayer and the importance of filing their returns as a student.”

Much of the demand came from international students. In its first year, the clinic collaborated closely with the International Students Advisor’s Office, organizing educational workshops on personal taxation in Canada.

“Initially, the law students were volunteering their time,” said Urinov. “After seeing the permanent need and demand for these services, we decided to formalize the tax clinic, to create a mutually beneficial project helping the UNB community while offering UNB Law students an experiential learning opportunity for academic credit.”

Prof. Urinov, along with Samer and classmate Justin Pyke (JD ’20), developed the program and syllabus for the tax clinic, giving it a structure. The group designed it to be a largely student-run experiential learning program, with Prof. Urinov as the coordinator. For the past two years, the program has become a permanent part of UNB Law's curriculum, attracting some of the best and most enthusiastic students each year.

Providing research support for the NB community

The 2020-21 team included Patrick Delaney (3L), Brean Marshall (3L), Meghan Murphy (3L) and Alexandra Faye Steinberg (2L). This year, the clinic expanded its mandate beyond tax education and filings to include researching practical tax problems to support the community. The team partnered with the NB Coalition for Tenants Rights (NBCTR), a non-profit group of academics, lawyers, advocates, and activists working to ensure safe, affordable, and adequate housing for New Brunswickers.

“The coalition asked us to examine rising rent prices and their connection to property taxes,” said Steinberg, “to answer the question, are commercial landlords justified in raising rent prices when citing the New Brunswick taxation policy as a pretext?”

The students examined the history and evolution of the property tax regime in New Brunswick, dissecting the policy and comparing it to that of the other provinces. They met with the coalition three times; first to clarify their questions, then to discuss their initial findings, and finally to present the team’s forty-seven-page report, which challenges several assumptions about the connection between property tax and rental rates.

In particular, the students’ report takes on the argument that NB imposes a “double tax,” that this so-called “double taxation” is unique to the province, and that the elimination of this tax scheme will result in more affordable housing. Their research has contributed to an op-ed published by the NBCTR outlining these myths and will be cited in a forthcoming peer-reviewed article.

“The tax clinic is different from a purely academic course,” said Prof. Urinov, “where we create hypothetical problems, test students, and grade them. What students experienced in the tax clinic was true experiential learning. They worked on an actual problem for real clients, developing skills in teamwork, legal research, client communication. They also faced some real challenges that served to improve their technology, teamwork, time-management and communication skills.”

Operating during a pandemic

In addition to their community partnership, the students operate a tax filing clinic that begins with a series of self-training sessions covering aspects of the Canadian income tax law pertaining to students, such as claiming deductions for moving expenses, the tax treatment of scholarships and grants, and claiming tax credits for study expenses such as tuition fees. The team then holds info sessions for the UNB community explaining the student’s rights and obligations as a taxpayer, answering their questions, and introducing them to the services of the clinic.

“Before beginning to file taxes, the clinic organizes several information sessions,” said Marshall. “It is through these sessions that I first began to see the impact. We met individuals from outside of Canada, unfamiliar with the Canadian tax system, or who have never filed for themselves before. These students were often unsure why, when or how to file taxes or simply wanted to prevent making mistakes.”

Normally, following the information sessions, students begin to book in-person filing appointments at the clinic office in The Gérard V. La Forest Law Library. However, this year, due to the pandemic, the clinic went virtual.

“The pandemic definitely proved challenging,” said Marshall. “A big portion of the clinic is helping clients to file. With this comes a certain amount of sensitive information and so the first hurdle was finding ways to make the process as secure as possible. We relied heavily on MS Teams meetings and email to communicate with clients and to fulfill the other commitments of our clinic. We were able to meet face-to-face with clients, answering questions in real-time.”

The four law students each provided four hours of availability per week, coordinating to ensure there was always at least one member of the team available for bookings. Each tax season, the clinic can accommodate a limited amount of bookings, and these spots fill up incredibly fast.

In order to meet the demand for tax information, the clinic created a YouTube instructional video which they share with students who cannot book an appointment. The video explains the step-by-step process of how to file electronically, ensuring nobody is left out of the process. From mid-March to mid-April, the clinic served over fifty students in either an advisory role or by filing their taxes for them, teaching them the necessary steps to remain tax compliant on their own in the future.

“Understanding how to be tax compliant is necessary for all adults earning income,” said Murphy. “Many students are just starting to earn an income for the first time, so learning about tax compliance at that stage is very helpful. Not only because failing to be tax compliant can lead to adverse effects, but also because students who earn low incomes may be missing out on potential tax refunds or credits if they fail to file their taxes.”

Prof. Urinov is thankful to the clinic’s partners, the CRA Community Volunteer Income Tax Program, and the UNB International Students Advisor’s Office. He looks forward to returning to in-person services for the clinic for the 2021-22 academic year, serving as many students as possible, and has plans to further expand the mandate of the program to include a partnership with anti-poverty groups and to support persons with disabilities.

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