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California bar considering banning sex between attorneys and clients

The California Bar Association's ethics rules are getting their first major revisions in three decades, the Associated Press reported recently. One hot-button issue: Can attorneys have sex with their clients?

If the ban is adopted, California will join 17 other states with a general ban on sex between attorneys and clients. The current rule in California already forbids sex between clients and attorneys in these cases:

  • It is coercive.
  • It is in exchange for legal favors.
  • It prevents the attorney from competently providing legal services.

But according to data cited in the AP report, the current rule has very rarely resulted in discipline. In fact, only one out of about 200 complaints the California bar investigated between 1992 and 2010 led to discipline.

The new rule would be based on an American Bar Association model rule that states, "A lawyer shall not have sexual relations with a client unless a consensual sexual relationship existed between them when the client-lawyer relationship commenced." The proposed California rule, thus, would not prevent an attorneys from representing their spouses or partners.

But what if the attorney and client are both consenting adults? Some opponents argue the proposed rule could violate privacy rights. Some supporters, on the other hand, question the nature of consent in the context of the unequal power between attorney and client.

In any case, California attorneys - or those hoping to practice in the state - should keep an eye on the proposed changes. The rule is still be debated, and will need to meet the approval of both the California bar's board and the California Supreme Court.

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