Starting in January of 2020, the California Bar will no longer be able to seek prospective lawyers’ mental health records. This comes after new legislation was enacted. Senate Bill 544removes the requirement that Bar applicants indicate their mental health status and sign over medical records.
California lawyers are regulated by the legislature. Under California's Business and Professions Code, lawyers, once they pass the bar exam, must be determined to be of "good moral character." However, the existence of a mental illness or disability does not mean that an individual cannot be of "good moral character." If they demonstrate that they are not of good character, they can be denied admission or disciplined by the California Supreme Court.
The bill, which was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom on July 30th, received no opposition. The bill was sponsored by Disability Rights California, a nonprofit advocating for individuals with disabilities. According to the senator who introduced it, the purpose of the bill is to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness. A mental health question on the bar application can have a chilling effect on law students who may choose not to seek treatment for their mental health conditions for fear it would affect their admission to the bar. Prospective lawyers with serious mental health issues would forgo treatment in order to avoid creating a paper trail of medical records that could be discovered by the California Bar. The hope is with the new bill in place, law students and prospective candidates will no longer live in fear of getting the treatment they need.
California is among a number of states that have eliminated the mental health inquiry from bar applications. Virginia, Louisiana, and Washington have already enacted similar laws prohibiting Bars from seeking attorneys' mental health records. In June, the New York State Bar Association launched a task force to review the state's bar application and ensure that mental health treatment does not negatively affect admission.
If you or a loved one has a mental disability and has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental disabilities. To schedule a consultation call (509) 991-7058.