WSR 19-23-020
[November 6, 2019]
NO. 25700-A-1270
The Washington State Access to Justice Board Pro Bono Council, having recommended the suggested amendment to RPC 6.5 New Comment [8], and the Court having approved the suggested amendment for publication;
Now, therefore, it is hereby
(a) That pursuant to the provisions of GR 9(g), the suggested amendment as shown below is to be published for comment in the Washington Reports, Washington Register, Washington State Bar Association and Administrative Office of the Court's websites in January 2020.
(b) The purpose statement as required by GR 9(e), is published solely for the information of the Bench, Bar and other interested parties.
(e) Comments are to be submitted to the Clerk of the Supreme Court by either U.S. Mail or Internet E-Mail by no later than April 30, 2020. Comments may be sent to the following addresses: P.O. Box 40929, Olympia, Washington 98504-0929, or Comments submitted by e-mail message must be limited to 1500 words.
dated at Olympia, Washington this 6th day of November, 2019.
For the Court
Fairhurst, C.J.
Suggested Amendment to
Submitted by the Pro Bono Council
A. Name of Proponent:
Pro Bono Council. As a subcommittee of the Washington State Access to Justice Board, the Pro Bono Council is a convening body that supports and advocates for the sixteen volunteer lawyer programs across the State.
B. Spokesperson:
Catherine Brown
Pro Bono Council Manager
1200 Fifth Avenue, Suite 700
Seattle, WA 98101
(206) 267-7026
C. Purpose:
To obtain a clarifying comment to Rule of Professional Conduct (RPC) 6.5 allowing a limited legal service program to provide notice, as described in paragraph (a)(3) of the Rule, at the time an individual applies for service, regardless of whether an actual conflict exists at that time.
RPC 6.5 allows non-profit and court-annexed limited legal services programs to offer short-term legal services to clients whose legal interests may be in conflict by exempting such representation from RPCs 1.7, 1.9(a), and 1.18(c), unless a participating lawyer has personal knowledge of a conflict and the conflict cannot be mitigated by specific screening measures. This exemption maximizes the limited resources of limited legal service programs and participating lawyers (pro bono and staff) to provide free legal help to eligible persons. A limited legal service program must utilize effective screening mechanisms to ensure confidential information is not disseminated to an attorney who is disqualified from assisting a client with competing interests because of a known personal conflict.1 A limited legal service program must provide each client with notice of the conflict and the screening mechanisms used to avoid the dissemination of confidential information relating to the representation of the competing interests.2 Finally, a limited legal service program must also be able to demonstrate by convincing evidence that no material information relating to the representation was transmitted to the opposing client's attorney.3
RPC 6.5 (a)(3)(i)
RPC 6.5 (a)(3)(ii)
RPC 6.5 (a)(3)(iii)
Neither the rule nor the comments prescribe how the notice is to be provided. In a known conflict situation, providing individualized notice of an actual conflict creates the potential for inconsistency with the duty of confidentiality codified in RPC 1.6. Further, in many of the cases handled by limited legal service programs in Washington State, providing individualized notice of a conflict can create safety issues for actual and potential clients.
Client safety issues in limited legal services programs often arise in cases involving domestic violence. Protection from domestic violence is an area of significant legal need across the country and in Washington. This is borne out by the Washington State Supreme Court-sponsored Civil Legal Needs Study Update of 2015 (Study). The Study found that 71 percent of low-income households in Washington face at least one civil legal problem during a 12-month period.4 Further, 76 percent of persons living in poverty who have significant legal needs in Washington cannot get the legal help or representation they need to resolve the problem.5 More importantly for purposes of this suggested comment, the Study confirmed that victims of domestic violence and/or sexual assault experience the highest number of legal problems per capita of any group: low-income Washingtonians who have suffered domestic violence or been a victim of sexual assault experience an average of 19.7 legal problems per household, twice the average experienced by the general low-income population.6
2015 Washington State Civil Legal Needs Study Update, p. 5, at
Id. at p. 15.
Id. at p. 13.
Several limited legal service programs, including volunteer lawyer programs, offer legal advice clinics for survivors of domestic violence (DV). If a DV survivor seeks legal aid services while their abuser is a current or former client of that program, under RPC 1.7 or 1.9 there could be a conflict of interest. As described above, RPC 6.5 allows a limited legal service program to provide short-term limited assistance to the conflicted client, who may be the victim/survivor, through the mechanism of screening any personally conflicted attorney(s) from the case and notifying both parties. The process raises the immediate concern that providing individualized notice of the actual conflict to each party creates an imminent risk of harm to the victim by alerting an alleged DV perpetrator that their victim is seeking legal advice. This notice could, thus, put the safety of the victim/survivor in greater jeopardy. As a collateral matter, RPC 1.6 counsels the exercise of caution when disclosing client information that is likely to result in imminent harm to a third-party.7 As a result of the lack of clarity on this issue, some limited legal service programs opt instead to follow a strict policy of not accepting clients where there is a known conflict, which then results in the opposite outcome to the underlying goal of RPC 6.5: to increase access to free limited legal services for low-income Washingtonians.
See RPC 1.6 Comment [6].
The suggested comment to RPC 6.5 provides important clarity regarding the notice requirement. This guidance will enable any non-profit or court-annexed limited legal service program that satisfies the provisions of RPC 6.5(a) to serve clients who face compounding challenges to seeking legal assistance and who might otherwise be barred from obtaining the help they need due to barriers unwittingly posed by the RPCs. At the same time, limited legal service programs are able to help keep those clients safe during the course of their legal matter without fear of increasing their risk of harm. The suggested comment will allow limited legal service programs to notify ALL actual and potential clients at the time an individual applies for help of the potential for conflicts and information about the screening mechanisms. This fulfills RPC 6.5's goal to maximize the accessibility of legal aid to as many individuals as possible while still protecting an individual client's interests, safety and confidentiality within the bounds of attorneys' professional duties.
Further, providing notice of the potential for conflicts and the screening mechanisms to all applicants for short-term legal services creates an opportunity for applicants to immediately opt out of receiving services if they feel doing so would be in their best interests. Providing notice only after an actual conflict arises allows no opportunity to opt out or raise objections before the conflict arises.
D. Hearing:
A hearing is not requested. The Pro Bono Council has conducted stakeholder outreach on this issue. Please see the attached supporting materials.
E. Expedited Consideration:
Expedited consideration is not requested.
F. Supporting Materials:
Statement regarding stakeholder outreach conducted by Pro Bono Council
Recommended by the Pro Bono Council
Suggested Additional Comment to Rule 6.5:
[8] Nonprofit and Court-Annexed Limited Legal Service Programs may provide notice, as described in paragraph (a)(3), at the time an individual applies for service, regardless of whether an actual conflict exists at that time.
Reviser's note: The brackets and enclosed material in the text of the above section occurred in the copy filed by the agency and appear in the Register pursuant to the requirements of RCW 34.08.040.