91 N.J.L.J. 257
April 25, 1968
Conflict of Interests
Legal Aid - Legal Aid Society
An inquiry has been made by the board of trustees of a county legal aid society and particularly by the chairman of the case committee of that society requesting an advisory opinion. The society is a nonprofit corporation funded through the Office of Economic Opportunity, the anti-poverty agency of the Federal Government, to provide legal services for indigents. The board of trustees (comprised of lawyers and non-lawyers) determines the policy of the organization within the guidelines of the Office of Economic Opportunity. The board of trustees has recommended that there be submitted to this Committee for its consideration several questions of professional ethics which have arisen out of the factual situation hereinafter described, and the society indicates
that it is requesting the determination of these questions so it may be used by its organization in determining its policy in this case and in similar ones which may arise in the future.
We are told that this matter pertains to six minors who entered a public school building without authority after school hours and ransacked, defiled and vandalized the classrooms. Apparently, one of the minors applied a lighted match to the furnishings and, as a result, the school building was set on fire.
We were also told that the board of education of the city thereafter instituted legal proceedings in order to recover damages to the building. The defendants named are the six minors and their parents. Four of the six parents and their children named as defendants now seek the representation of the legal aid society. The board of education bases its damage claim on R.S. 18:14-51, which states that any pupil who shall cut, deface, or otherwise injure any schoolhouse, furniture, fences, outbuildings, or other property of the school district shall be liable to suspension and punishment, and his parents or guardian shall be liable for damages
to the amount of the injury to be collected by the board of education in any court having jurisdiction, together with the costs of the action.
The legal aid society makes the following inquiries:
1. If the society undertakes the defense of the various groups of defendants, would it be representing a conflict of interests? It is our opinion it would. We can see how there could be inconsistent defenses pleaded by each of the defendants and we could even anticipate that testimony from one defendant might be given that would assist or prejudice one or more of the other defendants. That, in itself, would require a determination that there is a conflict of interests if the same person or persons were to assume the defense of all.
2. There being a conflict of interests for the society to represent the four groups of defendants, would full disclosure to all parties permit the society to proceed with their defense? The
answer is "no."
3. There being a conflict of interests for one member of the legal staff of the society to represent all the groups of defendants, would the society be able to undertake their defense if it were to assign each of the cases to a different member of its legal staff? The answer here is "no," it being our opinion that the society should allocate these various defendants to various lawyers, but not to members of its own legal staff.
4. There being a conflict of interests, would it be permissible for the society to represent one group of defendants and to assign the other groups to attorneys who are members of the
board of trustees of the society? Here again the answer is "no," because this would be merely a subterfuge and in conflict with our determination as above stated.
5. We have ruled on this question of partners many times before, and have stated that what is wrong for a lawyer, necessarily is wrong for his partner as well.
6. Would our answers be the same or different if it were determined that the defendants were denied representation by the society and therefore were unable to obtain counsel elsewhere because of their indigency? While technically it is not for this Committee to make such a determination, our answers are still the