Important information for attorneys and their clients. Clients: know the file is yours and you are entitled to it (with a possible exception for some materials). Attorneys: know what to turn over and when.
Common Attorney Questions: My client (or former client) wants a copy of his file, can I charge him copy fees to make a copy? What if he didn’t finish paying, can I hold the file until he does?
Texas Disciplinary Rule of Professional Conduct Rule 1.15: Upon termination of the attorney-client relationship, a lawyer must take steps to protect the client’s interest including surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled.
Texas follows a rule that the “file” belongs to the client, thus it must be surrendered to the client upon request. Lawyers may make a copy for their own files, but the file must be surrendered to the client upon request. Ethics opinion 610 makes it clear that lawyers may not hold a lien on the file, thus, regardless of whether the client has fully paid his bill, the lawyer must turn over the file.
Exception: Under the Michael Morton Act, a lawyer is prohibited from providing copies of the discovery provided by the state to the defendant (or others). The rule specifically states that a lawyer may allow a defendant (or certain others) to view the material but may not allow that person to have copies. Before allowing a defendant to view the material, a lawyer must redact identifying information. Because this material is excepted from disclosure to the client, a lawyer must keep this information separate so that it is not provided to the client in the event the client requests his file.
New legislation (HB 3791) clarifies the recent open question on whether a lawyer can turn over a DWI video to his client. Some lawyers believed the video could not be turned over to the client under the MMA because it was discovery received from the state under the MMA. Some believed it could be. The legislator cleared up the inquiry by amending CCP 2.139 to state specifically that DWI videos are available to the person stopped or arrested on suspicion of intoxication offenses. The DWI video includes video of the (1) stop, (2) arrest, (3) conduct of the person stopped during interaction with officer including SFSTs, or (4) procedure in which a person’s breath or blood is taken.
CAUTION FOR LAWYERS: Be careful with requests from subsequent attorneys for the client’s file. Only the client may request transfer of the file to the new counsel. In an interesting case, appellate/habeas counsel contacted former counsel for the client’s file. The former counsel refused to provide the file absent the client’s consent. The trial court then ordered former counsel to turn over the client’s file, over the client’s objection. In In re McCann, 422 S.W.3d 701 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013), the Court of Criminal Appeals issued a mandamus to prohibit the trial court from finding the attorney in contempt and to reverse the trial court’s order that the lawyer turn over the file. The Court recognized that since 1918 the Supreme Court of Texas has held that the file belongs to the client and without the client’s consent, the lawyer could not turn over the file.