Indiana Advisory Opinion on Reporting Child Abuse: Attorneys’ Obligations & Constraints

What happens when an Indiana lawyer learns, while representing a client, that a child is a victim of abuse or neglect? Must the lawyer make a report to the Indiana Department of Child Services or local law enforcement? The Indiana State Bar Association (“ISBA”) Legal Ethics Committee’s advisory conclusion is essentially, “it depends.”

In Formal Opinion 2 of 2015, the ISBA concluded that absent client consent, an attorney may not report information about suspected child abuse learned during a representation unless the lawyer believes it necessary “to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm.” Notably, the ISBA cautioned that the Indiana Supreme Court is the final authority on both Indiana law and the professional conduct of Indiana lawyers.

Generally, under Indiana Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6(a), a lawyer may not “reveal information relating to representation
of a client . . . .” However, Indiana Code §§ 31-33-5-1 and 5 broadly require that any “individual who has reason to believe that a child is a victim of child abuse or neglect” to “immediately make an oral report to (1) the department [of Child Services] or (2) the local law enforcement agency.” Failure to report constitutes a Class B misdemeanor under Indiana Code §31-33-22-1(a). This broad statute does not exempt lawyers from the reporting requirement. As a result, there is a direct conflict between a lawyer’s ethical duty to keep silent and the apparent statutory duty to speak.

The committee expressed that constitutional, pragmatic and statutory reasons dictate that the lawyer’s duty of confidentiality is generally paramount over the general duty
to report. The committee reiterated that Indiana’s constitution gives the Indiana Supreme Court authority to regulate lawyers. This authority indicates that the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct, which are promulgated by the court, “control over conflicting legislation.” After determining that Rule 1.6 generally trumps Indiana’s child abuse reporting statute, the committee concluded that, unless the client consents to disclosure, the rule forbids the attorney to report any abuse that does not come within the exception in Rule 1.6(b)(1) authorizing the disclosure of information necessary “to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm.” Absent the client’s consent, mandatory reporting would undermine the “fundamental principle” that “the lawyer must not reveal information relating to the representation” because confidentiality is critical to encouraging clients “to seek legal assistance and to communicate fully and frankly” with lawyers.

Nevertheless, the committee held that lawyers must report information relating to child abuse or neglect if they believe it necessary “to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm,” regardless of the client’s wishes. However, a lawyer may not report information of lesser harm without the client’s consent.

Although ISBA noted that Formal Opinion 2 of 2015 is advisory in nature and does not have the force of law, it is important for lawyers to obtain as much information as possible prior to disclosing information regarding possible child abuse. If the attorney does not have information that would lead him or her to be reasonably certain that death or substantial bodily harm was going to occur, the attorney could be potentially violating the rules of confidentiality.

Click here to access the full opinion.

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