May 01, 2016

Bar Admissions and Mental Health

ABA President Paulette Brown expressed support last month for amendments suggested by the Washington State Bar Association to remove questions related to mental health history from the state’s character and fitness review of bar applicants. The recommendation is in line with ABA policy adopted in 2015 urging state and territorial bar licensing entities to limit bar admission questions to issues involving “conduct or behavior that impairs an applicant’s ability to practice law in a competent, ethical, and professional manner.” In an April 21 letter to the Washington State Supreme Court, Brown emphasized that requiring bar applicants to provide their mental health histories, diagnoses or past treatment details unfairly discriminates against individuals with disabilities and is likely to deter individuals from seeking treatment. These questions, she said, have proven to be ineffective for identifying unfit applicants. Brown explained that the ABA policy makes clear, however, that licensing entities are not precluded from making follow-up inquiries concerning an applicant’s mental health history if the applicant has engaged in conduct or behavior that may otherwise warrant a denial of admission, and a mental health condition either has been raised by the applicant as, or is shown by other information to be, an explanation for such conduct or behavior. “We believe this approach strikes the right balance and allows licensing agencies to carry on in their vital role of protecting the profession and the public,” she said. A growing number of states − including Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Tennessee – have eliminated discriminatory mental health questions from their bar admissions practices.

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