Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 06-04

Issued December 8, 2006
1. Issue
: May a current or former client’s access to information in his client file in a criminal matter be restricted by his attorney?

2. Opinion: Absent prosecutorial or court-ordered restrictions, a former client’s access to his client file may not be restricted. In limited circumstances, a lawyer may delay transmission of certain information in a current client’s file.
3. Facts: In the course of representation, a public defender may develop client files that contain crime-scene photos, autopsy photos, victim body photos (such as in criminal or physical-abuse cases), third-party medical reports, victim-identification information (social security numbers, addresses and telephone numbers), psychological and psychosexual evaluations and reports regarding the client and others. Some of these documents in the client file may have been obtained through discovery or be subject to court-ordered or other prosecutorial restrictions on dissemination to the client. Not infrequently, current and former clients in criminal matters request all or portions of their files that may contain restricted materials.
A. As to Current Clients.
4. Rule 1.4 sets out the general rule:
(a) A lawyer shall:
(1) promptly inform the client of any decision or circumstance with respect to which the client’s informed consent, as defined in Rule 1.0(e), is required by these Rules;
(2) reasonably consult with the client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished;
(3) keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter;
(4) promptly comply with reasonable requests for information; and
(5) consult with the client about any relevant limitation on the lawyer’s conduct when the lawyer knows that the client expects assistance not permitted by the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law.
(b) A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.1
5. The obligation of a lawyer to keep the client “reasonably informed” and “promptly comply with reasonable requests for information” contained in Rules 1.4(a)(3), and (a)(4), implies that the lawyer may, under some circumstances, withhold information from a client whose request may be viewed as “unreasonable.” This is supported in comment [7] to Rule 1.4:
Withholding Information
[7] In some circumstances, a lawyer may be justified in delaying transmission of information when the client would be likely to react imprudently to an immediate communication. Thus, a lawyer might withhold a psychiatric diagnosis of a client when the examining psychiatrist indicates that disclosure would harm the client. A lawyer may not withhold information to serve the lawyer’s own interest or convenience or the interests or convenience of another person. Rules or court orders governing litigation may provide that information supplied to a lawyer may not be disclosed to the client. Rule 3.4(c) directs compliance with such rules or orders.2
Comment [7] makes clear that rules and court orders restricting disclosure of information that may become part of the client file cannot be disclosed to the client.
6. There are several rules and statutes that permit or impose dissemination restrictions on sensitive materials. Rule 16(e) of the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure allows limits to be imposed on the use of information provided through discovery. Rule 16(f) further provides for the entry of court orders limiting dissemination of sensitive discovery.3 Information obtained from a governmental entity may be subject to court orders restricting dissemination under the Governmental Records Access and Management Act.4 (more…)

Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 98-06

(Approved October 30, 1998)
Members of a county attorney’s office have requested an advisory opinion concerning conflicts between (1) attorney-client relationships between a county attorney and county officers and (2) statutory duties of a county attorney under Utah Code Ann. § 17-5-206 to institute suits to recover or restrain unlawful payments of county funds.

Opinion: If a current attorney-client relationship exists between a county attorney or a deputy county attorney and a person who may be a defendant in an action under Utah Code Ann. § 17-5-206 to recover or restrain unlawful payments of county funds, the attorney with such an attorney-client relationship may not ethically participate in such an action, whether by way of investigation, evaluation, filing, prosecution, direction, supervision, or otherwise.1The rules of imputed disqualification of Utah Rules of Professional Conduct 1.10 do not apply to the office of a full-time county attorney, so that individual county attorneys or deputy county attorneys who are free from conflicts in the matter may participate in actions under § 17-5-206, provided that appropriate screening procedures are established and maintained. Past representations by individual members of a county attorney’s office must be evaluated for conflicts under the provisions of Rule 1.9.
Analysis: A. Introduction. In Utah, a county attorney is an officer of the county elected to a four-year term of office.2The county attorney must be an attorney duly licensed to practice law in Utah who is an active member in good standing of the Utah State Bar.3By statute, “[t]he county attorney is the legal adviser of the county.”4Among other duties, the county attorney must defend all actions brought against the county and must give, when required and without fee, an opinion in writing to the county, district, precinct, and prosecution district officers on matters relating to the duties of their respective offices.5
Lawyers in a Utah county attorney’s office may include both the elected county attorney and unelected deputy county attorneys.6By Utah statute, whenever the official name of any principal officer of a county is used in law conferring powers or imposing duties or liabilities, it includes deputies.7
County attorneys in Utah have a statutory duty to institute suits in the name of the county to recover or restrain unlawful payments of county funds. Utah Code Ann. § 17-5-206 provides:
Whenever any county legislative body shall without authorization of law order any money paid for any purpose and such money shall have been actually paid, or whenever any other county officer has drawn any warrant in his own favor or in favor of any other person without being authorized thereto by the county legislative body or by law and the same shall have been paid, the county attorney of such county shall institute suit in the name of the county against such person or such officer and his official bondsman to recover the money so paid, and when the money has not been paid on such order or warrants, the county attorney of such county upon receiving notice shall commence suit in the name of the county to restrain the payment of the same; no order of the county legislative body shall be necessary in order to maintain either of such actions. (more…)