Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Indiana State Bar Association issues new opinion on confidentiality which contradicts the text of the rule it attempts to interpret

The Indiana State Bar Association recently issued a new opinion on confidentiality that concludes that absent client consent an attorney may not report information about suspected child abuse learned during a representation unless the lawyer believes it necessary to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm.  You can read the opinion, Op. 2 of 2015, here.  If that was all, this conclusion sounds perfectly consistent with the doctrine of confidentiality.  Unfortunately, it is not.

The question addressed by the opinion relates to the apparent conflict between a duty to report imposed on everyone by a state mandatory reporting statute and the duty of confidentiality which, subject to some exceptions, requires lawyers to keep secret information related to the representation.

As the opinion explains, the mandatory reporting statute in Indiana is broadly phrased, stating that any individual who has reason to believe that a child is a victim of child abuse or neglect is obligated to “immediately make an oral report to (1) the department [of Child Services] or (2) the local law enforcement agency.”  Making no exceptions for lawyers, the statute appears to require lawyers to disclose confidential information.

Given the apparent conflict between statute and the duty of confidentiality, the Legal Ethics Committee of the ISBA attempted to reach a compromise based on the general policy behind the duty of confidentiality and the text of the exception to the duty of confidentiality that allows, but does not require, an attorney to disclose information if needed to prevent substantial bodily harm or reasonably certain death.

Inexplicably, however, the Committee failed to mention the text of Indiana's rule, derived from the ABA's Model Rule 1.6, which clearly states that a lawyer may reveal confidential information to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary to comply with other laws.

In other words, according to the text of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct itself, a lawyer can disclose confidential information without violating the rules, in order to comply with the mandatory reporting statute.  The committee is simply wrong in finding a conflict between the rules and the statute.  The statute says you must report; the rules say you can. 

In fact, it is the Committee's new interpretation of the rule that is now in conflict with the text of the rule.  The Committee's opinion ignores the clear text of the rule, and, worse, re-writes it with a new interpretation that is not supported by the text. The Committee concludes that in many cases a lawyer can't report, when the rules say the lawyer can.

Now, let me be clear that I am not saying the conclusion suggested by the Committee is not good policy.  What I am saying is that it is not supported by the text of the rules.  If Indiana prefers the Committee's approach to the issue, it should amend the rules to reflect it.

UPDATE 10-7-15: Legal Ethics in Motion has a comment here.

UPDATE 10-12-15:  Professional Responsibility A contemporary approach has a comment here.

UPDATE 10-13-15:  I posted a follow up on the story here.

UPDATE April, 2016:  I wrote an article about this topic and you can read it here.

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