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Do you warn your friend?

A close friend tells you about the new man in her life. You’re a receptionist in a law office where he is a client. From office gossip you’ve heard the man has a past history of domestic violence. You know the rules about lawyer-client confidentiality, but your conscience says you should warn your friend. Do you?

By Ken Gallinger and Ruth McQuirter Scott

The tricky part of this question is found in this sentence: “You know the rules about lawyer-client confidentiality, but . . .” It’s tricky because unless there is a direct and credible threat of future violence, there is no allowable “but” to the principle of confidentiality.

Our legal system may not be perfect (understatement here), but its functioning depends upon clients being able to trust that confidences with their legal advocates will be respected, within all the bounds that the system defines.

So whether or not I tell my friend depends on how I know what I think I know. And there are three possibilities.
If I’ve heard about his history in any way that is “privileged,” then I cannot share it. Full stop. Period. So I would consult with my lawyer-boss to see if there are any other options available to me.

If the man was convicted in the past, those convictions are a matter of public record. In that case, I could advise my friend to check out whether such a record exists. Whether she does so or not is then up to her, and she would likely need legal help to do so — from another law office, not mine.

The trickiest situation arises if what I’ve heard comes purely from the rumour mill. We all know that such rumours shouldn’t circulate in law offices. And we all know that, in fact, they do. So I’d really struggle with this. But at the end of the day, I think I’d tell my friend something like this: “You know, I really can’t tell you much without jeopardizing my job. So don’t ask me for me details. But I need to tell you that in the last little while, I’ve heard some rumours about your new friend. So please be careful.”

I’m not really sure if that’s right or wrong. But it’s what I would do.

Author's photo
Ruth McQuirter Scott is an educator and member of Port Nelson United in Burlington, Ont.

I wish I could save all my friends and family from the pain they might endure due to poor choices. And I wish I had listened when, over the years, my friends and family tried to warn me of the consequences of my own decisions. But the hard fact is that each of us has lessons to learn, and that often involves going into new situations with blinders on.

The office gossip is unsubstantiated. When a client comes to a law office, he or she needs to trust that whatever is revealed is confidential. That means there are no leaks to outsiders through rumour or even hard facts. If the new man in my friend’s life is found guilty of domestic violence, that will become public record, and she will have access to the information through public channels.

This does not mean that I will stand by and refuse to intervene if I see any troubling signs in her relationship. I’ll suggest early on that we double-date so that I can meet her new love. I confess that I will likely be more vigilant than usual, watching for any demeaning comments, controlling behaviour or attempts to isolate her from her friends and family. I will be there to listen to my friend and to express any concerns I have. My comments, however, will be based on specific examples of what I have observed, not on office gossip.

I won’t be surprised if at first my friend discounts my advice. At the best of times, we don’t want to see the imperfections in a new partner. But my comments may just help her see through any abusive behaviour on the man’s part, and my openness to talk may help her overcome the shame that is often felt by an abused partner. My legal connections will also help if she requires intervention in the future.

I will be there for my friend, which is all any of us can really do for one another. 
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
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