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What are the Ethical Obligations of a Criminal Defense Attorney?

Criminal defense attorneys are subject to a range of ethical obligations that guide how they behave with clients, the court, and any others.  Many of these are based on case law, statutes, or rules of conduct by the relevant bar association. So, for example, a criminal justice attorney in Bridgeport is subject to the provisions of the American Bar Association, Connecticut Bar Association, and the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association.  All have codes of conduct on how lawyers should behave.

Above all else, a criminal defense attorney has an obligation and duty to act professionally and ethically at all times and to effectively represent their defendant to the best of their ability.  Defense attorneys need to walk a challenging line between being officers of the court while also being genuine advocates for their clients.

Ethical Obligations to Clients

For clients, moral obligations are to ensure the criminal justice attorney provides high quality, effective, and unbiased representation, regardless of personal perspectives or other pressures.  This representation includes:

Acting as an advocate and guide for the defendant, many of whom will not be familiar with their best legal options or consequences of particular choices and need to be guided through the process.  Such guidance includes providing advice on legal alternatives that may suit the client’s situation.  This advice does not mean the attorney needs to execute a directive by the client that is against the law or standards.

Avoiding conflicts of interest; including perceived conflicts of interest.  Such conflicts are a particular risk when there are joint defendants.

Challenge statutes, standards, or laws where it is in the best interests of the client to do so, and where doing so will improve the administration of criminal justice.  Besides providing community services, this ethical obligation means a defense attorney should not just agree with precedent.  Furthermore, the defense attorney should not merely agree with the laws that may be harmful to their client or overall application of criminal justice.  Instead, the attorney should seek to challenge those where there is a good faith reason to do so.

Maintain confidentiality and loyalty towards the client at all times, including adhering to attorney-client privilege and giving the client the best possible level of responsiveness and candor in all communication.

Conduct a prompt and thorough investigation into the case, including securing additional information that will assist in the better defense of the client.

Ensure an accurate and complete record of the case, including filing motions and putting objections and explanations in the documentation.

Ethical Obligations to the Court

The criminal defense attorney must also act ethically with the court at all times.  This conduct includes not misrepresenting the facts of the case or failing to disclose any relevant rulings or statutes that might apply to the client.  As with the client, the defense attorney must also avoid conflicts of interest in the court.

Failure to adhere to these obligations has the potential to do real harm to a defendant’s credibility and legal outcomes, as well as the reputation of the legal profession as a whole.  There are stiff penalties in place for not acting consistently with these ethical obligations, including disbarment, suspension, or censure.

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