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Duties of Confidentiality for Lawyers and Psychologists

What sorts of things [are] a psychiatrist required to tell the police, if you tell the psychiatrist in confidence? What about a lawyer?

By
Michael W. Flynn

First, a disclaimer: Although I am an attorney, the legal information in this podcast is not intended to be a substitute for seeking personalized legal advice from an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Further, I do not intend to create an attorney-client relationship with any listener.

Today’s topic is duties of confidentiality for lawyers and psychologists. Nicholas wrote:

What sorts of things [ar a psychiatrist required to tell the police, if you tell the psychiatrist in confidence? What about a lawyer?

Nicholas’ question pits the professionals’ potential duties to protect victims against the professionals’ duty of confidentiality to his or her client. The short answer is that psychotherapists are required in many states to inform police when the client makes a credible threat of violence against an identifiable victim. There are almost no situations where a lawyer is required to contact police, but a lawyer may choose to notify police in order to protect against imminent bodily injury or death.

Under general principles of tort law, no one has a duty to protect people from the violent acts of others. However, in some limited situations, you can be held responsible for the acts of people with whom you have a special relationship. In the landmark case of Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, the California Supreme Court held that the special relationship between a psychotherapist and a patient imposes on the therapist a duty to act reasonably to protect the foreseeable victims of a patient. In Tarasoff, a patient told his therapist that he intended to kill his girlfriend. The therapist detained the patient for a limited time, but then released him when he appeared rational. Nobody warned the girlfriend or her parents about the threat. Sadly, the patient killed his girlfriend. The court held that the University, as the therapist’s employer, had a duty to warn the foreseeable victim of a credible threat and take necessary steps to protect the victim. This included notifying the police.

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