Wick Communications

Hiding the cost of government

In Media law on 24 Apr 2015 at 8:30 am

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Have you ever asked for the legal bills incurred by a local municipality? Did you get them?

This month, a California appellate court made a serious error in vacating a Superior Court ruling that compelled Los Angeles County to release legal bills related to claims of excessive force at county jails. As a result, local government agencies in the state are sure to deny access to legal bills by claiming those bills are privileged communication between client and attorney.

I followed the rather torturous legal rationale outlined in County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court No. B257230 but, with due respect, that is our money and claims of violent abuse at the hands of jail guards are more important than esoteric arguments over the nuance of attorney-client privilege.

It all started in 2013, when the ACLU requested legal bills related to the county’s defense of nine cases brought by jail inmates alleging excessive force in the county jail system. The ACLU contended that lawyers working on behalf of the county were engaged in “scorched earth” tactics designed to drag out cases that should be settled. Because it was the public’s money and because the allegations go to the heart of our trust in government agents, the ACLU argued the public had a compelling right to see those bills. …

And the trial court agreed. It ordered the county to turn over the invoices, but the county sought a writ of mandate overturning the ruling and it got just that on April 13.

The California Court of Appeal ruled earlier this month that even the billing records are subject to nearly absolute attorney-client privilege. Unbelievably, part of the rationale comes from the very fact that the attorneys sought and expected confidentiality from the government. Huh?

Attorney-client privilege is fundamental to our system of jurisprudence. Our government officials sometimes need to be able to speak candidly with counsel. No one is asking for the work product of attorneys toiling on behalf of local government. We don’t seek taped communications, strategy notes or anything like that, but we are entitled to know how much all that work costs.

Constitutional arguments aside, do you think the lawyers in these cases really think that divulging those bills will materially affect their clients, or do you suppose they are just trying to hide how much they are charging you? By the way, just because local governments are granted the right by the courts to hide legal bills, they are in no way compelled to do so. Nothing is stopping your local municipality from releasing how much it pays its lawyers other than the lawyers themselves.






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