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Clean desk policy and confidentiality

We have introduced a clean desk policy for a number of reasons including the following:

  • it portrays the right image when clients call in;
  • it reduces the risk of client confidentiality being breached as confidential information is less likely to be left visible on a desk or a floor; and
  • scientific studies have shown that there is a reduction in stress when employees adopt a tidy desk policy.

It is generally accepted that a tidy desk is a sign of efficiency and effectiveness.

Operation of the clean desk policy

It is expected that all staff, including staff in law centres, Head Office, and other offices, will adhere to the following parameters:

  • desks should be kept tidy. All loose leaf correspondence and other similar material should be kept in trays. It should be possible to conduct a meeting with a client / staff member at a person’s desk;
  • books, periodicals etc should be kept on bookcases when they are not being worked upon. Periodic reviews of non client related material should be undertaken for the purpose of disposing of material that can be disposed of;
  • the number of client and other files kept out of cabinets or off the shelves for immediate attention should be kept to a minimum and should not exceed four at any one time. If a solicitor / law centre / staff member / business unit adopts a practice of matching incoming correspondence with the file, such files should be kept during the day behind the solicitor / staff member’s desk rather than on the desk or elsewhere where they may be visible. It is recognised that the number of files accompanying dictation tapes may exceed four. In both these cases the files should be stored in cabinets overnight if this is possible;
  • all staff should periodically review their offices / work stations for the purpose of ensuring that material that can be disposed of, is so disposed of. Great care should be taken that sensitive material is set aside for shredding. Regard should be had to the fact that many documents and other items may be available in soft copy and it may not be necessary to retain a hard copy;
  • files and other material should be maintained in a manner that makes them easily accessible to other staff in the event that the staff member with responsibility for the file or the material is out of the office; and
    offices should be kept tidy. Files should not be left on the general floor area, save in the circumstances set out above. Steps should be taken to ensure that offices are cleaned, including vacuum cleaned, regularly.

Confidentiality in general

The Guide to Professional Conduct of Solicitors in Ireland states that confidentiality is one of the core values of the solicitor/client relationship.  The duty to protect the client’s confidentiality extends to all staff.  Confidentiality must be observed in dealing with clients at all times.   

When a staff member commences employment with the Legal Aid Board they are given a copy of Circular 15/79 – Official Secrecy and Integrity.  The Board’s staff handbook provides further information in this regard.  The consequences of using official information for the purpose of obtaining private gain for oneself or another person is an offence and is punishable by imprisonment, fine or both. 

To ensure confidentiality, access to a file must normally be limited to law centre staff.

Where possible, at the end of each day, files should be stored in cabinets or locked drawers.    Keys to cabinets / drawers should be kept in an agreed secure place for access to all staff.  Individual offices should not normally be locked. However, if they are in an area accessible to the general public, they should be locked, but the key should be stored in an agreed secure location to be accessed by all law centre staff.  

Files must not be kept in any area that is not secure, for example, outside an area that can be accessed without a door code.  It is important to remember that people other than law centre staff e.g, cleaning staff, may have access to offices to carry out certain duties. It is expected that such cleaning would take place during office hours balanced against the need to cause the least amount of disruption to the work in offices. Client files should not be visible nor should any other material that is client related.  Post trays should be kept in a discrete location and should be placed in a cabinet if the staff member is out of the office.

When working at PCs or their laptops staff should never leave these unattended without first locking the screens (Ctrl + F1, then click “Lock this computer”).

The reception area is normally in public view. This area should be kept as clear as possible at all times and information, message or receipt books for example, should not be kept on desks within reach or sight of callers.  Computer screens near the reception area should be angled away from the view of the reception area.    

Solicitor and paralegal staff should be mindful, when conducting consultations in their office, that other client files are not visible.

Material should not be left on printers or photocopiers. 

In certain circumstances, specific client details or access to the file may need to be given to:

  • staff of Legal Services, for the purposes of deciding on applications for legal aid;
  • an Appeal Committee of the Board, for the purposes of deciding on an appeal; and
  • the Managing Solicitor /Director of Civil Legal Aid/Regional Manager, for the purposes of undertaking a review of the file or dealing with a complaint
  • Internal auditors to enable internal audits to be conducted.
  • Civil Operations, for the purposes of recording details of client complaints

Conversations with clients regarding their case should therefore normally take place in the solicitor’s office or in the law centre’s consultation room. They should not take place in the Reception area. Care should also be taken not to discuss confidential information on mobile telephones, particularly in public places. 

Staff in general offices should be mindful that conversations or telephone calls regarding clients or applicants may be heard in the waiting area. To assist maintaining confidentiality the Board has provided CD players to law centres for the purpose of playing classical music in waiting areas.  It should be noted that the Board does not have a licence to permit the use of radios on law centre premises. 

No material should be viewable by other clients attending meetings in the solicitor’s office.

Emails to clients may only be sent to one client at a time. That is to say, the same email should not be sent to multiple clients or copied to multiple clients. See è Chapter 2 for further information on the operation of the e-mail system.

Observing confidentiality outside the office

It may be necessary from time to time to take files home, for example, if you will be travelling to court from home the next day, or if you are returning directly home after a late court sitting. 

No file should be left unattended outside the office or your home for any period of any more than five minutes in any circumstances.

If you are taking files out of the law centre:

  • it should normally be only for the purpose of attending court or for a settlement meeting with the other party and you will return the files to the law centre immediately afterwards
  • if for any other reason it is necessary to remove a file from the office, you must leave a note of the files you are taking in your diary and advise the managing solicitor by e-mail that you are taking the files
    you must store the files in a locked briefcase when you are not working on them
  • the locked briefcase should be kept securely out of sight when you are not working on the files.

When travelling by car:

  • Do not leave your files unattended in your car for a period of any more than five minutes
  • If you must leave your files unattended in your car, for a period of up to five minutes (for example if you need to purchase fuel), they should be stored in a locked briefcase in the boot of your car, and your car must be locked. If you have a car alarm you must switch it on.

When travelling by train:

  • Do not leave your files unattended on the train for any period whatsoever. This means that if you need to go to the toilet, to purchase food or drink, or to leave your seat for any other reason whatsoever, you must take all of your files and any Board laptop you have with you.
  • Any work done on a file on train journeys must remain confidential 
  • Do not discuss confidential matters on mobile phones in public places or anywhere where you might be overheard

In the court building:

  • Do not bring files that are not necessary for the hearing
  • Client files must be stored in a locked briefcase when not in use and may only be left unattended in the Bar Room or in the practitioners’ area of the Court. If being left unattended in the Bar Room or in the practitioners’ area of the Court, periodic checking should occur and the files should not be left overnight.
  • Particular vigilance should be exercised when involved in cases which may involve large amounts of documents / files e.g, some child abduction cases. If material is being taken to court in boxes, the client’s name should not be on the outside of the box.
  • Where files are being stored in the boxes or any other sort of unsecure container, they should not be left unattended in any circumstances except in the Bar Room or the practitioners’ area of the Court.