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Many clients seek a lawyer's help at the darkest times of their life. They may be dealing with chronic illness, going through a contentious custody battle, fighting foreclosure, or facing prosecution and potential imprisonment. It's unsurprising then that some of these clients would struggle with feelings of depression or suicide.
How should an attorney react to a suicidal client? What can an attorney ethically reveal and what liability might attach to an attorney's acts or omissions?
The Suicidal Testator
A client comes to you for help preparing her will. She indicates that she plans on taking her own life but wants to get her affairs in order beforehand. Neither suicide nor attempted suicide is illegal in your jurisdiction. Can you disclose her suicidal intent to a third party? Do you have an obligation to?
Yes, a concerned attorney may reveal information necessary to prevent the client from committing suicide. Under Model Rule 1.6(b)(1), lawyers are permitted to reveal confidential information to the extent necessary to prevent certain death or substantial bodily harm.
A lawyer who does not report a client's desire to end her own life would likely not be liable for that omission unless the client was suffering diminished capacity. State bar associations are generally in sync on this issue, with Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, and New York all allowing disclosure.
Despondent in Lock Up
Of course, few real world situations are as straight forward as the above hypothetical. Imagine, for example, representing a client who has been arrested for felonious assault. He is pacing, nervous, teary-eyed, and obviously distraught. He worries allowed that his life will be ruined. When asked if he has thought about harming himself, he says he's considered a lot of things. Is the man suicidal? Should you disclose this to others?
Situations where a client is in custody pose unique challenges. While in custody, clients have little capacity to provide for their own needs. Most lock ups have no onsite medical or mental health staff, according to the Boston Bar Association, exacerbating suicide risks. When suicide happens, it most frequently happens within the first day of incarceration.
In such situations, attorneys should often demand that their client be evaluated by a medical professional. They may also want to take extra steps to ensure that medical care and evaluations are actually given.
As with many situations involving life, death, and mental health, attorneys are forced to balance a multitude of competing concerns. If you are dealing with a suicidal client, we encourage you to contact your state bar association for more specific guidance.