Inside Track: Ethical Dilemmas: When a Client Threatens Suicide:

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    Oct. 17, 2012 – Ethical dilemmas affect every lawyer’s practice. This series of questions and answers appears each month in InsideTrack. The answers, offered by State Bar’s ethics counsel org tpierce wisbar Timothy Pierce, are intended to provide guidance only and are not legal authority. Each situation will depend on the facts and circumstances involved.

    Question

    I represent a man charged with sexual assault of a child and he has steadfastly maintained his innocence. However, as trial approaches, he has become more depressed and agitated. I was just on the phone with him and during the phone call, the client stated, “I know you’ve done all you could for me, but there’s no way I can beat this. I’m going to save the state the expense of locking me up for life, because I won’t be alive for the trial,” then hangs up the phone. What do I do?

    Answer

    SCR 20:1.6(c)(1) allows a lawyer to reveal information to prevent reasonably likely death or substantial bodily harm. Therefore, the lawyer would have the option to contact a family member, the authorities, or some other appropriate person to attempt to prevent the client from harming himself. Some authorities also consider genuinely suicidal clients to be incapable of acting in their own interests, thus allowing the lawyer to take reasonable steps, including revealing information that would otherwise be confidential, to protect the client under SCR 20:1.14. However, under either analysis, any action the lawyer takes is optional – there is no mandatory duty under the Rules in these circumstances.

    References: SCR 20:1.6, SCR 20:1.14; Alaska Bar Association Ethics Opinions No. 2005-1.