STCL Houston Receives IRS Grant Extending its Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic to More Houstonians
With a new grant from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), students and staff attorneys in South Texas College of Law Houston’s (STCL Houston) Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) can provide their pro bono legal services to more underserved Houstonians.
The new three-year grant extends the IRS’s initial $43,000 grant, which helped to establish the law school’s LITC. Since the launch of this Clinic — one of 23 separate, specialized clinics of STCL Houston’s Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics — the IRS has supported its initial investment in the LITC each year through renewal grants of approximately $100,000.
The caseload of the LITC has increased significantly since it was established in fall 2016. Currently, students and staff in the LITC have more than 75 active cases and, in addition, assist taxpayers by providing informal consultations and conducting educational outreach.
Clients routinely visit the school’s on-campus LITC to learn about tax issues and receive help in resolving tax problems. The LITC helps a wide variety of Houston-area residents, including those who have a tax question, those who have received a letter from the IRS and are not sure how to proceed, and those who owe back taxes but are unable to pay them.
“The increased caseload of STCL Houston’s LITC demonstrates that there is a significant need in the Houston-metro area for pro bono tax assistance that we are helping to meet,” said Bruce McGovern, professor and LITC director. “Through the LITC, students receive valuable training and experience in communicating with and advising clients, developing case strategy, and negotiating with an adverse party. At the same time, the LITC permits low-income individuals to receive free, high-quality legal representation that makes a real difference in their lives.”
Under the direction of McGovern and LITC staff attorney Jeff Gold, law students assist clients in negotiating with IRS examining agents, filing protests with IRS Appeals and negotiating with appeals officers, and preparing and filing petitions with the U.S. Tax Court. In appropriate cases, staff and students seek collection due-process hearings and assist clients with installment agreements.
Students and staff in the LITC serve taxpayers in the Greater Houston region, including those in Brazoria, Fort Bend, Harris, and Montgomery Counties. This geographic area is home to approximately 5.7 million individuals, two million of whom live at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.
Among these residents, 43 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 7 percent are Asian, and 39 percent speak a language other than English at home. For this reason, the LITC also targets the large Spanish-speaking populations in the region, as well as other international communities, such as the Asian populations speaking Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Hindi. To reach these residents, the LITC works closely with community agencies that partner with the law school’s 22 other clinics, including those that address immigration, civil practice issues, and domestic violence.
To qualify for assistance in the LITC, taxpayers must have an annual income at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which equates to $29,700 per year for an individual, and $60,750 per year for a family of four. Potential clients can seek LITC assistance by calling the special toll-free number, 1-800-646-1253, or emailing the law school at email@example.com. The LITC at STCL Houston operates year-round, closing only for school holidays. Clinic hours are Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Law students enrolled in the LITC have completed a course in federal income taxation and participate in a weekly classroom component in which they become familiar with tax procedure and the possible paths that a tax controversy might take. They also develop skills that allow them to serve Houstonians in need of their assistance. Eight students currently are enrolled in the LITC.
In addition to working one-on-one with clients in the Clinic, STCL Houston staff and students deliver educational presentations on topics pertaining to low-income and English-as-a-second-language taxpayers. These seminars are held off-campus at community centers and other locations and address issues such as tax filing requirements and deadlines, record-keeping, deductions, identity theft, tax rules for immigrants, the collections process, the earned taxpayer credit, and the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
“Being able to work hands-on with clients who are in need of legal assistance and not in the position to afford counsel is humbling,” said Lana McCarty, a student in STCL Houston’s LITC. “We are able to help real people with real problems and are becoming better advocates because of it.”
Each year, STCL Houston students provide more than 35,000 hours of pro bono legal services to underserved Houston residents, valued at nearly $1.8 million. STCL Houston is home to more legal clinics than any other Texas law school.