The University of Tasmania’s community Tax Clinic continues to thrive during 2020, making the move online to provide low-income earners with high-quality tax advice and help.
Commencing in March 2019 in Hobart and Launceston, the UTAS Tax Clinic is a part of the National Tax Clinic program funded by the Commonwealth.
And while face-to-face consultations have taken a pause this year, the UTAS students who make up the Tax Clinic staff have maintained their service to clients over Zoom.
And it’s something that UTAS Senior Taxation lecturer and Tax Clinic mentor Dr John McLaren is keen to continue.
“Our objectives are to represent low-income taxpayers and unrepresented taxpayers,” Dr McLaren said.
“We’re not in competition with the tax profession … most of our clients either have nil tax returns, but they feel they should be lodging something every year, or the average refund is probably in the nature of about $50 to $100.
“Sometimes, tax agents don’t have the time to explain things to clients. We explain it to them. We’re a free clinic. We don’t charge anyone, but we are happy to give some advice. And there are always students with us when we give advice. We usually have four or five students rostered on each day of the week. So there is that gaining of some very practical but specialised knowledge. But also just how to listen to clients.”
The Tax Clinic aims to increase tax literacy within the community, by encouraging clients to lodge their tax returns and related documents such as a Business Activity Statement by themselves. The clinic also assists taxpayers who have a tax debt or dispute with the Australian Taxation Office.
But central to the Tax Clinic’s mission is providing real-life experience to business students and readying them for the workforce. Once students have been trained to a competent level, they can take consultations on their own.
Master of Professional Accounting student Pei Fern said her involvement with the clinics had provided a much-needed dose of real-world experience.
“The application of knowledge is just as important as studying the knowledge,” she said.
“The Tax Clinic is my first point where I’ve got involvement in Business Activity Statements, as well as personal and small-business tax returns, so this is helping me to understand how we can do it for ourself as well as for other people who are in our community.”
Master of Professional Accounting student Rui Li said that the clinics provided an invaluable opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge in a practical situation, with each case unique in its details.
“The Tax Clinic provides a good start in our career, and the experience can also be counted as accounting working experience for the CPA program,” she said.
Master of Finance student Amy said a highlight of her experiences with the clinic was dealing directly with clients.
“We work in a very professional tax team. We also learn how to improve our communication skills during the consultation.”
Dr McLaren said internships had quickly become sought-after, primarily because of the positive effects involvement has on students’ employability.
“But looking beyond that huge benefit to students, we are helping the community,” Dr McLaren said, adding that data privacy was an utmost priority.
“We don’t need the client’s address, we don’t need personal details, we don’t keep Tax File Numbers, but we do keep meticulous notes on what the client needs and what we did for the client.”