Articles Posted in Actual Innocence

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Another State Supreme Court, here Idaho, has abandoned the actual innocence rule. That rule holds that a criminal defendant cannot sue his lawyer for legal malpractice unless he establishes actual innocence.

The court explained:

This Court has addressed a legal malpractice claim arising from a criminal case only once, in Lamb v. Manweiler, 129 Idaho 269, 923 P.2d 976 (1996). Lamb did not address the statute of limitations issue; however, Lamb did address—in dicta—the actual innocence element. Id. at 272, 923 P.2d at 979. Before the appeal reached this Court, the Idaho Court of Appeals vacated and remanded the district court’s grant of summary judgment. In doing so, the Idaho Court of Appeals addressed an issue of first impression in Idaho: where a legal malpractice suit stems from the representation of a client in a criminal prosecution, must a plaintiff prove actual innocence? The Idaho Court of Appeals held that a plaintiff must prove that he or she was in fact innocent of a crime. Manweiler petitioned this Court for review, and this Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment. This Court did not expressly require actual innocence as an element of the claim; rather, it stated that “Lamb does not dispute the proposition that in a legal malpractice action arising from representation of a defendant in a criminal proceeding, the person pursuing the claim must establish the additional element of actual innocence of the underlying criminal charges.” Id.

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I have written several times over the past year about the actual innocence rule, which requires a criminal defendant to prove actual innocence before he can sue his criminal defense lawyer for legal malpractice. Several courts have abandoned the rule in recent years. Washington, however, has decided in the case listed below to uphold the Rule. I don’t agree with the reasoning of the decision. There is no just reason to give the criminal defense lawyers immunity from malpractice lawsuits if they make an error that rises to the level of malpractice.

Professor Bernabe of John Marshall has written an excellent article on this case. You can find the article at this link. http://bernabepr.blogspot.com/2016/07/washington-state-supreme-court-holds.html

Source: PIRIS v. Kitching, 345 P. 3d 13 – Wash: Court of Appeals, 1st Div. 2015 – Google Scholar

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This is an important issue for legal malpractice attorneys. Is a former criminal defendant required to show actual innocence before he can sue for legal malpractice? Most courts have answered this question with “Yes,” but some states are beginning to deviate from the doctrine. The Iowa Supreme Court held that actual innocence is not required to bring a malpractice suit and but that guilt/innocence determinations are relevant to proof of proximate causation.  In other words, you can’t show the lawyer’s actions were the proximate cause of the conviction if you were really guilty.

Regarding actions for malpractice by a criminal defendant, the Restatement concludes that “it is not necessary to prove that the convicted defendant was in fact innocent,” although it notes that “most jurisdictions addressing the issue have stricter rules.” Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers § 53 cmt. d, at 392 (Am. Law Inst. 2000) [hereinafter Restatement]. The Restatement adds,

As required by most jurisdictions addressing the issue, a convicted defendant 166*166 seeking damages for malpractice causing a conviction must have had that conviction set aside when process for that relief on the grounds asserted in the malpractice action is available.