The 2007 Washington State Legislature passed House Bill 1897, which is now codified in Washington law as Chapter 391, Laws of 2007. It went into effect on July 22, 2007.
The law clarifies that the Public Records Act never allowed state or local governments to withhold their legal bills from the public (except for minor redactions of attorney-client privilege and other parts of the records which are exempt from disclosure under another law). The new law provides:
It is the intent of the legislature to clarify that no reasonable construction of chapter 42.56 RCW [the Public Records Act] has ever allowed attorney invoices to be withheld in their entirety by any public entity in a request for documents under that chapter. It is further the intent of the legislature that specific descriptions of work performed be redacted only if they would reveal an attorney’s mental impressions, actual legal advice, theories, or opinions, or are otherwise exempt under this act or other laws, with the burden upon the public entity to justify each redaction and narrowly construe any exception to full disclosure. The legislature intends to clarify that the public’s interest in open, accountable government includes an accounting of any expenditure of public resources, including through liability insurance, upon private legal counsel or private consultants.
This bill was spawned by Thurston County’s amazing refusal to provide its legal bills from a Seattle law firm in a huge sexual harassment case against the prosecuting attorney’s office.
It is extremely rare for the Legislature to go to the trouble of passing a law saying “We meant what we said in the past. Here’s a separate piece of legislation to clear that up.”
Local government fought hard against the passage of this law. Really hard. Some local governments might attempt to withhold legal bills despite the passage of House Bill 1897. In fact, we at Allied Law Group fully expect that.
If a state agency or local government tells you that you can’t have legal bills, you might consider contacting Allied Law Group. We enforce the Public Records Act.
By the way, Thurston County’s legal bills were over $2,000,000 -- to defend the County in a suit they ultimately lost at the trial court level. No wonder they fought so hard to prevent disclosure.