UNSW Sydney, UNSW Business School

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UNSW Tax Clinic mobilizes researchers from a variety of disciplines to identify systemic issues faced by financially vulnerable cohorts and advocate for reform.

Call to Action

The UNSW Tax Clinic aims to make a sustained and ongoing contribution to society by working with the federal government and policymakers to identify tax-related issues and work toward reform. The tax and transfer system has a profound impact on the quality of life of financially vulnerable cohorts. However, these issues are typically overlooked in a range of literatures including sociology, mental health, and economic abuse.

For example, extensive literature exists on the inverse relationship between debt levels and financial well-being, and it is well established that increased financial hardship is strongly associated with decreased mental health and depression. However, little research exists on the ways tax stress affects individuals’ financial well-being and mental health. Similarly, it is also well established that economic and social programs that address and prevent financial hardships may assist in improving community mental health. Yet it remains unexplored internationally whether pro bono tax clinic programs such as the Australian Government-funded National Tax Clinic Program also offers this benefit.

UNSW Tax Clinic’s interdisciplinary research highlights the importance of targeting this vulnerable segment of the population and emphasizing their need for free tax advice provided by registered tax agents—and the positive outcomes for client financial well-being and mental health, among others.

Description

UNSW Tax Clinic, launched in 2019, works directly with financial counselors to serve financially vulnerable individuals and small businesses by providing them with free year-round tax advice, representation, education, and advocacy services. The objectives of the clinic are to advance tax justice for marginalized members of the community by providing free and independent tax advice, identifying systemic issues and novel interventions through interdisciplinary research, and removing systemic injustice by advocating for tax reform.

Tax advice is provided by a registered tax agent who also supervises enrolled students and student volunteers from the UNSW Business School, UNSW Faculty of Law & Justice, and UNSW Faculty of Arts, Design & Architecture. In doing so, the clinic instills a pro bono ethic in the next generation of tax professionals. Our anonymized client data is provided with consent to our interdisciplinary research team. The clinic has an internationally pioneering research agenda, which engages in breakthrough, grassroots research on systemic issues faced by financially vulnerable individuals and small businesses.

Our interdisciplinary team includes researchers in tax law and accounting, sociology, public policy, mental health, and social work. Specifically, our researchers are from the UNSW School of Accounting, Auditing & Taxation, the UNSW Centre for Social Impact, the Black Dog Institute, and the UNSW Gendered Violence Research Network, respectively. We have multiple papers under review and revision, including in Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal.

Impact

In addition to directly helping clients with their tax problems, UNSW Tax Clinic engages in meaningful cross-referrals with social workers, mental health support workers, financial counselors, and pro bono lawyers to address deeper systemic injustices in our society.

The clinic is making an impact in higher education by building collaborative relationships across disciplines, connecting real-world challenges to student learning, and contributing new research insights. Our breakthrough research agenda includes: (1) quantifying the otherwise unmet need for tax advice, specifically to the 30.1-40.6 percent of people in financial distress; (2) improving mental health outcomes, as 64 percent of our clients have a probable serious mental illness; and (3) identifying and supporting women experiencing economic abuse, often associated with domestic violence. We have presented our research findings in seminars at the Melbourne Law School and UNSW Social Policy Research Centre.

Our tax education, pro bono advice, and breakthrough research helps advance progress toward the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Specifically, the clinic contributes to the betterment of society by fighting the effects of financial hardship and improving access to government support (SDGs 1 and 2); improving mental health and financial well-being (SDG 3); empowering women (SDG 5); and reducing inequalities by supporting the most disadvantaged in our community (SDG 10).

UNSW Tax Clinic was invited to appear before the Australian Government House of Representatives Standing Committee on Tax and Revenue, and we have since continued our engagement with this parliamentary committee’s members. We also shine a spotlight on an otherwise underresearched and underrepresented cohort of taxpayers in our collaborative relationship with the Australian Taxation Office.

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