“Can I Have My Case File?”

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In State v. Padgett, the WA Court of Appeals held that a defendant’s motion to compel production of his client file and discovery materials is governed by CrR 4.7(h)(3) and RPC 1.6(d).  Although disclosure shall be granted when a criminal defendant requests copies of his or her file, without any showing of need, disclosure is also subject to redactions.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2014, Mr. Padgett was convicted of several felonies. In November 2016, during
the pendency of his appeal, he filed a motion to compel production of his client file. The trial court held a hearing on Mr. Padgett’s motion. However, the prosecutor opposed the motion citing procedural issues and an interest in limiting Mr. Padgett’s access to sensitive
information in the discovery file. Ultimately, the trial court sided with the prosecutor and denied Mr. Padgett’s motion. He appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under CrR 4.7(h)(3), defense counsel is authorized to provide discovery materials to a defendant “after making appropriate redactions which are approved by the prosecuting authority or order of the court.” Furthermore, under RPC 1.16(d) the professional conduct rules also require defense counsel to “surrender papers and property to which the client is entitled” upon termination of representation unless retention is “permitted by other law.”

The Court of Appeals also reasoned that Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) has issued an ethics advisory opinion interpreting RPC 1.16(d) to mean that “unless there is an express agreement to the contrary, the file generated in the course of representation, with limited exceptions, must be turned over to the client at the client’s request” at the conclusion of representation.

“Under the combined force of CrR 4.7(h)(3) and RPC 1.16(d), some sort of disclosure must be made when a criminal defendant requests copies of his or her client file and relevant discovery at the conclusion of representation. Similar to a public records request, no showing of need is required for disclosure.”

Despite its reasoning, the Court also gave limits and parameters. It said that while CrR 4.7(h)(3) and RPC 1.16(d) require disclosure, they do not entitle a defendant to unlimited access to an attorney’s file or discovery. Counsel may withhold materials if doing so would not prejudice the client.

That said, examples of papers – the withholding of which would not prejudice the client – would be drafts of papers, duplicate copies, photocopies of research material, and lawyers’ personal notes containing subjective impressions such as comments about identifiable persons. In addition, materials may be redacted as approved by the prosecuting attorney or court order, in order to protect against dissemination of sensitive or confidential information. Finally, a protective order may also be entered, if appropriate.

Against that background, and given the foregoing rules, the Court of Appeals held the trial court was obliged to grant Mr. Padgett’s motion for disclosure of his client file. It reasoned that if a defendant is denied access to his client file and related discovery materials, he will be deprived of a critical resource for completing a viable appeal.

My opinion? Good decision. Personally and professionally speaking, it benefits everyone when all parties are clear and transparent as possible regarding access to a client’s case file. Clients have a right to know and attorneys have a duty to provide.