To Protect or to Serve: Confidentiality, Client Protection and Domestic Violence


This article addresses the ethical dilemma of whether and when the attorney for an adult victim of domestic violence can or should disclose confidential communications for the protection of his or her own client.

Advocates maintain that domestic violence is the single major cause of injury to women in the United States. The risks are undeniable. An attorney representing a client who remains in or voluntarily returns to a violent relationship may confront conflicting ethical duties because it is difficult, if not impossible, for the attorney to determine which cases will end in further violence and which will not.

This article considers situations in which an attorney might wish to notify authorities about a risk to a victim-client after considering his or her duty to maintain client confidences, respect client autonomy and, most importantly, ensure the safety of the victim. For the attorney who wishes to act for the protection of the client, the 2002 amendments to the Revised Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.6(b)(1), in particular, may provide a safe harbor in limited situations and in those states adopting the changes.

Although an attorney might be inclined to make impulsive judgments about the need for legal intervention in a particular case, such actions may place the client at greater risk. For this reason, the article also includes extensive research to guide the attorney in more accurately assessing the danger to the client.


Law and Gender

Date of this Version

March 2006