Change Could Let Conn. Attys Financially Aid Pro Bono Clients

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The rules committee of Connecticut's Superior Court system on Monday voted to approve a proposed amendment that would allow attorneys to financially support impoverished clients.

The committee, which consists of Superior Court judges and is chaired by Justice Andrew McDonald of the state Supreme Court, unanimously accepted the Connecticut Bar Association's proposed revision to professional conduct rules for attorneys in the state.

Supporters of the proposal say the change would help struggling Connecticut residents obtain basic needs from their attorneys, who might otherwise risk professional repercussions for offering modest support. A memorandum from the bar association's ethics committee said possible abuse of this provision would be limited as it would apply only to pro bono counsel and their clients.

Bridgeport-based attorney Marcy Tench Stovall of Pullman & Comley LLC, who wrote the memo and presented the amendment in Monday's meeting, said that the change was based on a parallel one that the American Bar Association accepted for its model rules in August 2020.

"All states have now adopted some version of the ABA's Model Rules of Professional Conduct," Stovall, who also is the legislative liaison for the bar's professional ethics committee, told Law360 Pulse after Monday's meeting. "So, generally, when the ABA amends a rule, Connecticut ... will amend the Connecticut rule in a way that seems appropriate for Connecticut."

Stovall said that the bar largely followed the ABA's example, with a few tweaks to address redundant language. She said there was one "substantial" addition: that "the financial assistance couldn't be offered as an inducement for a client to take, or forgo taking, any action in the matter in which the lawyer was representing the client."

Stovall said this amendment arose out of increasing concerns about access to justice for clients living in poverty and struggling to make ends meet.

"The rule creates an exception to a prohibition, and the exception only affects lawyers representing clients who are not paying a fee," she said. "That generally tends to be clients who are very poor. So I think the idea was [to make] a humanitarian exception, so that lawyers could provide certain kinds of limited assistance to clients in financial need."

Justice McDonald said the change could help many clients in Connecticut.

"Keep in mind that about 75% of litigants in [state] housing court, and about 85% in family court, represent themselves. ... The purpose of the rule, overall, is that you don't want lawyers effectively underrating the litigation because it would undermine the integrity of the judicial process, if that was to happen," he told Law360 Pulse on Tuesday. "That doesn't come into play when you're talking about these types of modest advances."

This amendment likely would have passed during the committee's meeting in February, Stovall said, but Joseph J. Del Ciampo, the state judiciary's legal services director, noticed a slight difference in language between amendment versions that was resolved on Monday.

The committee at the meeting discussed matters like reappointing members of a special committee for certifying lawyers in specialized practices, as well as leaders' revisions to rules guiding how authorities cancel unserved arrest warrants and pretrial discovery procedures.

The discovery discussion grew out of a proposal from state lawmakers. Justice McDonald said this possible change was particularly significant for criminal defendants.

"Oftentimes, defendants have to accept or reject plea deals, plea offers, before they have all of the information that the prosecutors have or are getting," Justice McDonald told Law360 Pulse. "So they are making very significant decisions about their liberty without having full knowledge of what the state has in its case file for the prosecution. This rule change will delineate time frames within which discovery has to be provided, and a judge has to make sure that all of the discovery has been furnished to the defendant in advance of any plea deal being accepted by the court."

Monday's vote does not make the rule changes immediately effective. Instead, the changes to the judiciary practice book and conduct rules approved last year must be published in the Connecticut Law Journal. They then will be discussed at a public hearing on May 10 and addressed again at a judges' conference on June 11, a judicial branch spokesperson confirmed to Law360 Pulse.

"Whatever the judges approve generally goes into effect the next January 1," Stovall said.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

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