In criminal matters, in which the trust between attorney and client has enhanced importance, special vigilance is required because an attorney's divided loyalty can undermine a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel.
After an altercation, defendant returned to the scene, and began shooting. The victim was hit in the neck, and died after seven days. A member of the law firm agreed to represent defendant before learning the name of the victim. Another member of the firm represented the victim in other matters. The trial court and the appellate court held that no conflict existed since the victim was dead. On appeal, the judgment was reversed and the matter was remanded for entry of an order disqualifying the law firm.
Did the trial court and appellate court err in its denials of the motion to disqualify defendant's counsel?
The state supreme court held that the interests of the two clients were adverse, resulting in a prohibited actual conflict under N.J. Ct. R. Prof. Conduct 1.7. Until the charges against the victim were dismissed, the firm had to answer to the court and to the prosecutor for him. The firm owed a continuing duty of loyalty to him, or his estate, throughout the duration of that representation. The firm could not proceed with the defense, notwithstanding defendant's consent to the representation.