Have you ever recognize yourself involved in an ethical dilemma? Even if you are not a counselor or mental health expert, it is most likely that at some phase of your life, you have been directly or indirectly involved in a situation in which ethical conduct was to be considered.

The growth and standardization of service industries, as well as the increasing awareness and obligation imposed by Privacy legislation, has led to the development of codes of conduct designed to protect both sides of the professional relationship - particularly the interests of clients. In counseling, ethical conduct is not only expected, but in many cases, is required by legislation.

So how does ethical conduct apply to the counselling relationship? Basically, ethics in counselling is comprised of two areas: confidentiality and professional ethics.


"For counselling to be maximally effective, the client must feel secure in the knowledge that what they tell the counselor is to be treated with a high degree of confidentiality. In an ideal world a client would be offered total confidentiality so that they would feel free to openly explore with the counselor the darkest recesses of their mind, and to discuss the most intimate details of their thoughts."

It is recommended that counselor discuss confidentiality issues with clients before the counselling relationship is established. In most cases, the counselor will tell the client that their relationship will be relatively confidential. Relative confidentiality is required in order to improve the quality of the service, as on many occasions, the counselor may have to: discuss session details with supervisors, exchange valuable information with other professionals, or maintain notes and formal records of every session that has occurred. Furthermore, there are legal issues involving confidentiality: if a court order is issued, the counselor must release personal records in order to comply with legislation. This can be a very sensitive matter, especially when the counselor acquires knowledge that a client is dangerous and may put other lives at risk. These dilemmas are faced by many counsellors working in prisons, or with aggressive and potentially dangerous clients.

"While I worked for Drug Arm as a Project Officer for a programme called HART (Home Assessment Response Team), my role was to visit people in their own homes, who were affected by substance misuse challenges. Sometimes their home was within the confines of Community Correction Centers. Because confidentiality was stretched sometimes at certain stages of their imprisonment, I would strongly recommend to my clients that it would be preferable for them not to mention names or dates so that I would not have that unnecessary information (and evidence) to cause them harm should there ever be the need to have my duty to report or disclose some evidence of a particular situation, challenged."

Due to such situations, some counsellors even affirm that promising absolute confidentiality is unethical. The following are common aspects of a counselling relationship which prevent counsellors from providing absolute confidentiality to their clients:

- Keeping records of sessions and client's personal data;

- Release of information to Supervisors;

- Protection of third persons from endangering situations;

- Court orders or similar law enforcement issues which require information disclosure.

Professional Ethics

Because counselling is not a regulated profession in many countries (including Australia), the use of a professional code of ethics is a method of guiding the quality of the services provided by counsellors, the quality of training provided to counsellors, and protecting clients. These codes provide conduct guidelines for professionals and are an effective way to provide practice standards to many counsellors lacking experience or knowledge of the industry. It also serves the purpose of structuring the counselling industry, offering common professional narrative, definitions and service boundaries based on the each type of counselor. An industry association in Australia called “The Australian Counselling Association” that offers ethical guidelines and a code of conduct for counsellors.