Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Lawyers revealing clients' lies

The state of Washington is proposing new ethics rules that would require lawyers to tell the court if they discover that their client had previously lied (story). Current rules do not allow lawyers to lie themselves or put their client on the stand if they know he will lie, but do require admission of "discovered" falsehoods; the lawyer typically is allowed to step down from the case. The proposed rule is consistent with a set of model rules put out by the American Bar Association and a similar rule is already in place in 10 other states.

The changes would "dramatically shift lawyers' duties in Washington, making their obligation to the court more important than their duty to their clients." Some defense attorneys are, not surprisingly, objecting and say that this rule would "crush the whole idea of attorney-client confidentiality".

I've always found it disturbing that our legal system focuses so much on the adversarial relationship between two sides that it neglects the higher duty to justice and the truth. To me (a non-lawyer) it only stands to reason that the truth is more important that blindly advocating a position in favor of your client.

The article cites an example:
What if an arrested man persuades a judge to release him without bail, explaining that he lives with his mother and has a full-time job, and the lawyer later learns that neither is true? The lawyer would have to tell the judge -- probably ensuring that the client gets locked up, [Seattle criminal defense lawyer] Rodriguez said.
I just don't see the problem here. In this hypothetical the man lied about the conditions that were used to justify his release. Without them he would not have been released (without bail anyway). Why should the man gain the advantage of his lie when an officer of the court (his lawyer) knows the truth? Especially since the man likely committed perjury in addition to whatever crime he has been charged with. I just don't see the ethical quandary for the lawyer.

A defendant has a right to a fair trial. The procedures and rules of our legal system exist to ensure that he receives a fair trial. But there is no right to lie under oath.

Hat tip: Howard Bashman's excellent How Appealing blog.

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