RPC 1.6(a), RPC 1.6(b)(6), RPC 1.14(b)
Considerations regarding disclosure of civil commitment proceedings while representing a criminal defendant
Summary: This opinion discusses circumstances under which a lawyer representing a criminal defendant may be able to disclose the client's involvement in civil commitment proceedings to a court or prosecutor. The opinion addresses express informed consent and implied consent under RPC 1.6(a), the exception contained in RPC 1.6(b)(6), and authorization under RPC 1.14(b).
A lawyer representing a criminal defendant faces a dilemma if the client fails to appear in court due to civil commitment in a hospital under RCW Ch. 71.05. If the lawyer fails to disclose the commitment, the court may issue a warrant for the client's arrest or take other action detrimental to the client's interests. However, disclosure of the commitment risks violating RPC 1.6. Advisory Opinions 2099 (2005) and 2190 (2009) address a similar issue – whether or how to disclose to the court a concern about the client's competence to stand trial – but they do not address disclosure of a civil commitment proceeding. This opinion reviews ethical considerations presented by that dilemma, which is particularly acute when the lawyer does not learn of the civil commitment in advance of the hearing.
RPC 1.6(a) provides: "A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation or the disclosure is permitted by paragraph (b)." Paragraph (b) of the rule describes eight scenarios in which a lawyer may reveal information relating to the representation without the client's informed or implied consent. Of these, subparagraph (b)(6), authorizing disclosure to comply with a court order, is relevant to this discussion.
Although it is important to discuss a client's objectives early in any engagement *n1 and to review them periodically during the engagement, it can be particularly helpful to do so if the lawyer anticipates that mental health issues could complicate the client's defense. Should the client's condition subsequently deteriorate, it may become difficult for the client to make informed decisions about significant issues or, if the client is hospitalized, it may become difficult to communicate with the client at all.
Discussion about the relative importance of confidentiality and liberty may be not be feasible early in an engagement. However, if feasible, such discussions may in some cases lead to express, informed consent to disclose information protected by RPC 1.6 to the court and/or the prosecutor. In other cases such discussions before circumstances become exigent may provide a basis for the lawyer to conclude later in the engagement that the client gave implied consent.
"Informed consent" means the client's "agreement . . . to a proposed course of conduct after the lawyer has communicated adequate information and explanation about the material risks of and reasonably available alternatives to the propose course of conduct." RPC 1.0A(e). RPC 1.6(a) does not require that informed consent be confirmed in writing. However, it may be advisable for the lawyer to provide the client a written description of the information that the client has authorized to be disclosed and the circumstances under which disclosure is authorized, together with the information that the client may revoke consent at any time. To avoid misunderstanding, the lawyer may ask the client to sign the authorization and may note that any revocation should be provided in writing. The scope of a disclosure pursuant to express, informed consent should be limited to the scope of the authorization. *n2
If early discussions do not progress to the point where the client makes a decision to give or refuse express, informed consent, the discussions may nevertheless progress to the point where the lawyer reasonably believes that the client has impliedly authorized disclosure of information in some circumstances to avoid adverse consequences to the client's liberty. When making a disclosure pursuant to implied authorization, the lawyer should disclose no more information than is reasonably necessary to accomplish the client's objective in preserving personal liberty. See RPC 1.6(b) and Comment .
In some cases a court may order a lawyer to reveal information relating to the representation of a client. For example, if an issue has arisen concerning the competence of the client to stand trial, the court may order the lawyer to disclose information protected by RPC 1.6 related to that issue. Subparagraph (b)(6) authorizes a lawyer to disclose otherwise confidential information pursuant to court order. However, the introductory language of paragraph (b) cautions that the lawyer's disclosure should be limited in scope to information that the lawyer reasonably believes is necessary to disclose under the circumstances. Comment  provides this guidance regarding court-ordered disclosure: "Absent informed consent of the client to do otherwise, the lawyer should assert on behalf of the client all non-frivolous claims that the information sought is protected against disclosure by the attorney-client privilege or other applicable law. In the event of an adverse ruling, the lawyer must consult with the client about the possibility of appeal to the extent required by Rule 1.4. Unless review is sought, however, paragraph (b)(6) permits the lawyer to comply with the court's order." When complying with such an order, the lawyer may consider providing disclosure to the court in camera or in chambers and/or requesting that the record be sealed.
RPC 1.14 may come into play if the lawyer does not have informed or implied consent and is not subject to a court order. This rule governs representation of a client with diminished capacity. Paragraph (b) authorizes a lawyer to take reasonably necessary protective action "[w]hen the lawyer reasonably believes that the client has diminished capacity, is at risk of substantial physical, financial or other harm unless action is taken and cannot adequately act in the client's own interest."
A client who is at risk of being arrested and jailed for failing to appear in court might conceivably face substantial physical harm in some circumstances. For example, mental health issues can sometimes cause an encounter with law enforcement to escalate quickly and unexpectedly, and confinement in jail during a pandemic can create increased risk of infection. In addition, a client who accumulates a series of arrest warrants has an increased risk of adverse rulings in court. The comments to RPC 1.14 do not discuss what types of harm might qualify as "other harm," meaning harm not considered physical or financial that could nevertheless merit protective action. Advisory Opinion 2190 observes: "Because [of] the broad language of [RPC 1.14(b)], it would not be unreasonable to assume that 'other harm' did constitute harm to a client's constitutionally protected interest [in being competent to stand trial]." The same observation applies regarding a criminal defendant's liberty interest.
Comment  to RPC 1.14 provides guidance for making a determination whether the client has diminished capacity. If the lawyer concludes that the other requirements of RPC 1.14(b) are also satisfied, the next question is whether disclosure to the court is "reasonably necessary protective action." Although such disclosure is not listed among the examples in Comment , the comment states: "In taking any protective action, the lawyer should be guided by such factors as the wishes and values of the client to the extent known [and] the client's best interests . . ." Discussion about the client's objectives early in the engagement may provide a basis for concluding that disclosure to the court is an appropriate protective action under RPC 1.14. Comment  states: "When taking protective action pursuant to paragraph (b), the lawyer is impliedly authorized to make the necessary disclosures, even when the client directs the lawyer to the contrary."
If the lawyer discloses information to the court, whether pursuant to RPC 1.6(a), RPC 1.6(b)(6) or RPC 1.14, the lawyer must comply with RPC 3.3 governing candor toward the tribunal.
It is a separate question whether disclosure of the information that a client is in civil commitment may be prohibited by statute. The Committee does not opine on questions of law.
1. RPC 1.2(a) requires a lawyer to abide by a client's decisions concerning the objectives of the representation and notes that RPC 1.4 requires the lawyer to consult with the client as to the means by which the objectives are to be pursued.
2. If a client lacks capacity to give informed consent at the outset of an engagement, there may be an issue as to whether the client is competent to stand trial. See Advisory Opinions 2099 and 2190 for guidance regarding disclosure.