Washington Law Review


An Ethical Dilemma: Attorneys' Duties Not to Reveal Elder Abuse in Washington State

October 30, 2015 | 90 Wash. L. Rev. 1471

Abstract: Elder abuse is a growing social issue in the United States. As a result of increasing awareness of elder abuse, every state has enacted mandatory or voluntary reporting laws to encourage public oversight of this vulnerable population. While mandatory and voluntary reporting statutes list a wide variety of professionals, such as physicians, social workers, and caretakers, as mandatory reporters, few of these statutes require attorneys to report elder abuse. Arguably, attorneys are in the best position to discover abuse of their elderly clients, as attorneys are advisors, counselors, and protectors of their clients' affairs. However, in many circumstances, an elderly client may be reluctant to report the abuse and insist there be no report made. In this situation, attorneys are bound by ethical rules against disclosing confidential client information without the client's consent. In Washington State, this prohibition effectively bars an attorney from reporting emotional or financial abuse of her elderly client without the client's consent, even if such abuse threatens the client's health or to drain the elder's financial resources. While the protection of client confidences is a fundamental cornerstone of the attorney-client relationship, Washington State should recognize that all forms of elder abuse result in an increased risk of mortality, and consider amending its Rules of Professional Conduct to permit voluntary attorney disclosure of elder abuse.

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