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High court says cases before Bar are public

Starting in March, when lawyers are in trouble, it won't be a secret. The Florida Supreme Court this week abolished a rule that made complaints against lawyers confidential unless the Florida Bar brought formal charges before the court.

Stephen Zack, president of the Bar, said opening disciplinary proceedings could enhance the image of lawyers.

"If lawyers are to command public respect, we need to be open to public scrutiny," Zack said Thursday after the high court's ruling. "It goes along with the privilege to practice law."

In the year ending June 30, 1988, the Bar received 6,919 complaints, which resulted in 280 disciplinary actions. Because of the confidentiality rule, 97 percent of the complaints remained secret.

The confidentiality rule prevented anyone who filed a complaint against a lawyer from speaking about it under penalty of a contempt sentence.

"Public respect and confidence in the primarily self-operated lawyer disciplinary system can best be gained by allowing the public to determine for itself that the grievance system works efficiently, fairly and accurately," the court said in its opinion.

Under new guidelines that take effect March 17, anyone who files a

complaint against a lawyer will be free to discuss it and release any

pertinent correspondence.

The Bar will be free to confirm or deny the existence of a complaint against a lawyer and the complaint's status.

The court's decision also allows access to all reports, transcripts and correspondence to and from a lawyer involved in a complaint.

The Bar has authority to discipline the state's 44,2000 lawyers, including disbarment, after complaints of unethical behavior. The complaints are reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court, which approves the rules of the Florida Bar.

"The more people know about what the Florida Bar does in its grievance process, the better the people in the state of Florida are," Zack said.

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