Although, as I noted in my last post (<https://danielreitman.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/is-someone-else-paying-your-lawyer/>), lawyers are required to protect confidential information from client, there are some exceptions. For this reason, there are a few things you probably shouldn’t tell your lawyer. A recent case in Washington illustrates one major exception: prevention of crime. This differs from the “buried bodies” situation I mentioned in the previous article, which involved a past crime and is protected from disclosure.
The ethical rules in most states allow (and in some states, require) lawyers to reveal confidential information to prevent a crime or fraud. The exact details vary from state to state. In Oregon, a lawyer is permitted, but not required, to reveal information about a client’s intent to commit a crime and information necessary to prevent it or to prevent “seasonably certain” death or severe injury In Washington, a lawyer is allowed to reveal information to prevent the client from committing a crime and required to reveal information to prevent “reasonably certain” death or substantial injury, If the crime to be prevented homicide or a severe assault, a lawyer in Washington may be obligated to reveal information.
The case in question involved a request for a domestic violence protective order. After a nonmarital relationship ended, the parties agreed to a parenting plan for their children, which was officially approved by the court. Some time later, the mother discovered the father may have been abusing the children, and moved to modify the plan.
While the motion was pending, the father fired his lawyer (which does not end the requirement to protect confidential information), and told her that if he was dissatisfied with the court’s ruling, he would kill the mother. The father’s lawyer notified the mother’s lawyer, and the mother moved for a protective order.
The trial judge relied heavily on the report of the father’s threat from his lawyer to the mother’s lawyer in finding that the mother was in danger. The judge noted that the extraordinary nature of a lawyer revealing a client’s confidential information was, in itself, a strong indicator that the report was believable. The Court of Appeals quoted her reasoning and agreed.
If you’ve done something wrong, you are allowed to tell your lawyer about it and expect it to remain confidential. What you do at your peril is to reveal an intent to commit a crime in the future. For that reason, you should be careful what you tell your lawyer.