The attorney-client privilege allows a client to candidly communicate with legal counsel without concern that the discussion will become public. However, the privilege is only as secure as it is treated by the client. Religious organizations involved in litigation are vulnerable to damaging disclosures of privileged communications because of the community relationship between leadership and the organizations’ membership.
Religious organizations’ leadership is primarily composed of members with deep ties to the membership. Typically, this leadership is constituted through a formal board. Because of this intimate relationship with the membership, when legal issues concerning a lawsuit come before the board, especially litigation concerning another member, it becomes extremely difficult for board members to keep from inadvertently sharing privileged information with their religious community. This difficulty is amplified for religious organizations with large boards.
The solution to this problem is the creation of a litigation committee. A litigation committee is composed of a handful of board members who become the point of contact for the lawyers. All privileged communications pass between legal counsel and the committee members. The committee is empowered by the full board with the authority to give legal counsel instructions. If a report is to be made to the full board concerning litigation matters, a sanitized report can be crafted with the assistance of legal counsel. As long as the litigation committee is comprised of trusted members of the board, privileged information should be safe.
Due to the importance of protecting all attorney-client communications, a religious organization should communicate with counsel early in the course of litigation about creation of a litigation committee.