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Have you ever found yourself involved in an ethical dilemma? Even if you are not a counsellor or mental health professional, it is most likely that at some stage of your life, you have been directly or indirectly involved in a situation in which ethical conduct was to be considered. The growth and standardisation 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 counselling, 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 counsellor 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 counsellor the darkest recesses of their mind, and to discuss the most intimate details of their thoughts.” (Geldard & Geldard, 1998)*

It is recommended that counsellors discuss confidentiality issues with clients before the counselling relationship is established. In most cases, the counsellor 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 counsellor 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 counsellor must release personal records in order to comply with legislation. This can be a very sensitive matter, especially when the counsellor 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.

“A counsellor who worked on a drug and substance abuse programme , had to visit people in their own homes, who were affected by substance misuse challenges. Sometimes their home was within the confines of Community Correction Centres. Because confidentiality was stretched sometimes at certain stages of their imprisonment, he strongly recommended to clients that it would be preferable for them not to mention names or dates so that he would not have that unnecessary information (and evidence) to cause them harm should there ever be the need to have 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, providing common professional descriptions, definitions and service boundaries according to each type of counsellor.

The SRI LANKA COUNSELORS AND COMPLIMENTARY THERAPISTS is one association in Sri Lankathat provides ethical guidelines and a code of conduct for counsellors. The SRI LANKA COUNSELORS AND COMPLIMENTARY THERAPISTS Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice – can be accessed from their website at
An excerpt from this Code is:

Counsellors will:

ü Offer a non-judgemental professional service, free from discrimination, honouring the individuality of the client.

ü Establish the helping relationship in order to maintain the integrity and empowerment of the client without offering advice.

ü Be committed to ongoing personal and professional development.

Complying with ethical guidelines is one of the most important aspects of being a professional counsellor. Creating awareness in both counsellor and clients of the boundaries of the services provided will lead to a better development of the profession, and overall improvement of industry standards. Counsellors are responsible for keeping up-to-date with professional codes of ethics, confidentiality guidelines, and other relevant information.

If you would like to find more about ethics and professional conduct, visit the SRI LANKA COUNSELORS AND COMPLIMENTARY THERAPISTS website

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