Pro Bono Students Canada

PBSC Tax Advocacy Project with Dentons Canada LLP


It’s difficult to imagine how justice can be served when a self-represented litigant finds herself up against a trained and experienced lawyer.  This is particularly true in the context of tax law, a highly complex and specialized area of the justice system.

From Left to Right: Denise Cooney (student); Timothy Fitzsimmons (Dentons, formerly FMC); Doug Stewart (Dentons); Shannon McDunnough (student); Angelo Gentile (Dentons); David Spiro (Dentons); Nikki Gershbain (PBSC); Shaira Nanji (student); Jared Mackey (student); Richard Li (student); Evelyn Dormer (student).

In an attempt to level this playing field, PBSC and Dentons Canada LLP partnered in 2011 to pilot the innovative Tax Advocacy Project (TAP).  The only pro bono project of its kind in Canada, TAP enables law students, with the assistance of a team of highly regarded tax litigators from Dentons Canada LLP, to gain practical experience representing low-income taxpayers before the Court.

The Tax Advocacy Project was initiated at the suggestion of the Chief Justice of Tax Court, The Honourable Gerald J. Rip, who was concerned about the large number of unrepresented litigants appearing in the Tax Court – a staggering 5,000 between 2008 and 2012.  Even more distressing was the fact that many of these taxpayers actually had a strong basis to appeal assessments of tax, interest or penalties issued by the Canada Revenue Agency, but had neither the information nor the skill set necessary to be successful in court.

The PBSC-TAP currently operates in several Canadian law faculties, including McGill, Université de Montréal, Université de Sherbrooke, as well as the University of Toronto where the program originated.  All of the projects are run in partnership with Dentons, which has developed and delivers a rigorous training program for the students, and provides supervision to the students on all aspects of the files.  Most recently, PBSC-Dalhousie teamed up with the Atlantic law firm McInnis Cooper LLP, and a Halifax TAP will launch this Fall.

Working in pairs, TAP students are involved in all stages of the litigation process.  Even before their files are assigned they spend a morning observing a trial in the Tax Court and they meet with the presiding judge in chambers after the hearing.  They also benefit from an introductory session with the former Chief Justice of the Tax Court, Don Bowman, who is counsel at Dentons.  They meet as a group to review their files and then interview their clients, obtain relevant information and documents, assemble a list of witnesses, prepare legal submissions and, finally, conduct the hearing.   After the conclusion of the trials, they attend a debrief session where everyone provides their thoughts on how the process can be improved for the following year.  At all stages of the process they are assisted by a Dentons lawyer, who even attends the hearing to answer any questions the student advocates may have during recesses and adjournments.

The TAP project has quickly become one of the most highly sought-after pro bono opportunities on campus, with students selected through a competitive application process.  Barbara Grossman, Chair of the Ontario Pro Bono Committee and a partner at Dentons, sees the PBSC TAP volunteers as the potential “next generation” of lawyers at Bay Street firms like Dentons, with a significant tax and litigation practice and a strong pro bono culture.  She notes that applicants with actual courtroom and settlement negotiation experience that is gained in the TAP program will have an advantage in the hiring process for positions at many firms and will also be better able to determine their own areas of career interest. Some students who have participated in the PBSC TAP program now have reported decisions from the TCC to their credit including judicial compliments about the assistance they provided to their client and to the Court.

The TAP provides students with an opportunity to gain experience that simply cannot be earned in the classroom.  Students benefit from having some of the best lawyers in the field available to answer questions and provide assistance, not just on the substantive areas of tax law but also on procedural matters that are applicable to any litigation process.  Evelyn Dormer, a University of Toronto Faculty of Law graduate and former volunteer with the TAP, remarked that the opportunity to apply what she had learned in her tax class to real-life court struggles was “invaluable.”  David Spiro, counsel at Dentons and the lead lawyer on the project, indicated that he has been extremely impressed with the quality of the student work on this project.  He says he was “not at all surprised” to learn that Dormer was subsequently offered a prestigious clerkship with the Tax Court of Canada in Ottawa.  Spiro also says that “the students who participate in this project are way ahead of their classmates – it doesn’t matter if they want to pursue a career in tax planning, tax litigation or any kind of litigation at all – the experience of being on their feet in the courtroom is simply invaluable!”

While practical legal experiences and strong résumé building are important, students consistently remark that the real value of the project for them is the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on vulnerable members of the community.  Evelyn Dormer proudly shares an excerpt from an email she received from one of her tax clients, who wrote: “Thank you for all your hard work. You have been awesome and again, and I’m blessed to know that God does send good people like you my way. I’m forever grateful!”

The TAP project has received attention and accolades from across the country, including a 2011 Lexpert Zenith Award for PBSC and Dentons for the contribution the project makes to legal education in Canada. PBSC and Dentons hope to expand the project to additional cities and law schools in Canada in the coming years.

Recent Dentons Publications

“Pro Bono Representation: Legal Aid and the Self- Represented Litigant in the Tax Court of Canada” by former Chief Justice of the Tax Court of Canada Donald Bowman for The International Association of Tax Judges Newsletter 

“The Settlement of Tax Dispute in Canada”, by former Chief Justice of the Tax Court of Canada Donald Bowman for The International Association of Tax Judges Newsletter