People v. Superior Court (Laff)

25 Cal. 4th 703, 107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 323, 23 P.3d 563 (2001)



Protecting the confidentiality of communications between attorney and client is fundamental to the American legal system. The attorney-client privilege is a hallmark of our jurisprudence that furthers the public policy of ensuring the right of every person to freely and fully confer and confide in one having knowledge of the law, and skilled in its practice, in order that the former may have adequate advice and a proper defense. It is no mere peripheral evidentiary rule, but is held vital to the effective administration of justice. Permitting unfettered access to attorney-client communications, simply because there is no pending proceeding at which testimony can be compelled, would violate the policies supporting the privilege as well as the statutory and ethical obligations of attorneys to maintain client confidences.


Following the seizure of documents from the offices of two attorneys who were suspected of automobile insurance fraud, the attorneys requested that the trial court conduct an in camera hearing to determine whether any of the seized documents were subject to the attorney-client privilege or the work product doctrine. The trial court appointed a special master to review the seized documents, but refused to proceed unless the People agreed to pay one-half the cost of the special master's services.The People contended that the attorneys had no right to such a hearing, and that neither the attorney-client privilege nor the work-product doctrine precluded disclosure of documents properly seized under a valid search warrant. The lawyers filed a petition for a writ of mandate with the Court of Appeal of California to compel the superior court to conduct an in camera hearing to determine whether seized documents were privileged without requiring the People to contribute to the cost of a special master. This was denied. The case was elevated to the Supreme Court of California.


Was it proper for the superior court to refuse to proceed with the special master unless the People agreed to pay one-half the cost of the special master's services?




The superior court had an obligation to determine claims of privilege regarding materials seized from attorneys. While Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §639 did not authorize a compulsory reference in a proceeding to determine whether seized documents were privileged, the superior court possessed inherent authority to appoint a special master to assist in examining such documents. However, the superior court lacked either statutory or inherent power to require the parties to bear the cost of a special master's services in this context.

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