Wednesday, 15 April 2009

US Tax Court Judicial Conference, April 2009

The United States Tax Court held its annual Judicial Conference in Galloway, New Jersey, USA, in early April. Among many other things, the conference embodied a very well-crafted and productive effort to highlight access to justice issues before a broad range of lawyers, some of whose daily work might not focus on those issues. The conference showed how a court can emphasize to everyone doing business there the importance of pro bono work. A large proportion of petitioners before the Tax Court appear pro se. Anyone with income can have a tax issue, and while the amount at issue may be small, the litigant’s need for adjudication may be great. Thus, the Tax Court very actively encourages pro bono representation, and the recent conference contributed to this overall effort.

The conference’s hosts were the Court’s Judges, of whom some 35 were in attendance, along with eight of their staff. Other participants included some 45 lawyers from the US Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) Office of Chief Counsel, whose members represent the government in the Tax Court, as well as one from the Department of Justice, which represents the government when tax issues arise in other fora. Some 150 lawyers from the private bar attended, ranging from members of global firms to lawyers with solo pro bono practices. The network of IRS-funded Low Income Taxpayer Clinics was well-represented.

The discussion topics addressed substantive and procedural matters touching on the full variety of issues brought to the court, such as the valuation of interests in family trusts, rules for discovery of electronic records, judicial deference to agency regulations, and more. Notably, there were repeated opportunities for discussion of pro bono work. One panel focused on various bar- and clinic-sponsored programs which enable members of the bar to represent low-income taxpayers on an occasional or regular basis. Another discussed procedural provisions governing the collection of tax amounts owed, typically of interest to low-income taxpayers. Several judges hosted a breakfast for representatives of low-income taxpayers for informal discussion. A DVD addressed to pro se litigants, showing how they can pursue their cases in court, was distributed to all attendees.

Thus, members of the Tax Court bar had many occasions to hear about access to justice for underserved segments of the population. The International Bar Association and its Pro Bono and Access to Justice Committee have the same goal for our sessions at the IBA Annual Conference this year. We plan to use this blog to share a wide variety of ideas about how we as lawyers can find ways to keep this goal in mind.

Posted by Robin Westbrook
IBA Pro bono and Access to Justice Committee

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