Responsibilities of a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL)
In a custody case, or a divorce case involving children, the Court may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL). Black’s Law Dictionary defines a guardian ad litem as the party the court deems responsible for an incapacitated, handicapped, or minor in court.
In the District of Columbia
D.C. Code Sections 16-918(b) and 16-831.06(c) allow the Court to appoint a GAL to appear on behalf of the child and represent his or her best interests in a proceeding where the custody of a child is in question. The Court is not required to appoint a GAL, but may do so at its discretion.
A Court may appoint a GAL in some of the following situations: there is a high level of conflict between the parties, there is a basis to believe there is parental manipulation or undue influence, the child has or will inherit substantial assets or will receive child support, there are past allegations of abuse or neglect, there are past or present allegations of domestic violence, there are past or present mental health issues, there are special needs of the child, there is a request to relocate, there are issues involving change in access or visitation, there have attempts to remove the child from the jurisdiction, or any other reason the Court deems just.
In D.C., the GAL is appointed to represent the best interests of minor child. The GAL is an active participant in the proceedings, and may investigate and evaluate the issues at hand. The GAL has the right to fully participate in every court proceeding – this means he/she can call witnesses, cross-examine witnesses, submit evidence, submit pleadings, make objections, propound discovery, and give an opening or closing argument.
After the initial appointment, the GAL is responsible for informing the parties of his or her appointment, and reviewing the case file. The GAL then meets with the child. The GAL may tell the child of the proceedings, and meet with the child in his or her home. The GAL may also meet with the child outside the presence of the parents. The GAL is also responsible for making a thorough investigation. This investigation includes reviewing any court files of the child, siblings, parties, and household members. The GAL will also review the child’s medical, social, educational, and psychiatric records. The GAL may act as a facilitator between the parents (with permission from their lawyers).
After the investigation, the GAL may make a recommendation at the Court’s request on his or her position of custody. If the case goes to trial, the GAL will participate in trial and advocate for his or her position. It’s important to remember that the GAL represents the child, (not either parent) and retains his or her independence and objectivity. It is to everyone’s advantage to cooperate with the GAL and provide any information the GAL requests.
Rule 8.6 of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Virginia defines the role of a GAL as a representation of the child’s legitimate interest. The GAL must vigorously represent the child, and fully protect the child’s welfare. Virginia doesn’t have formal standards for GALs, and so the roles and responsibilities of the GAL vary from court to court. However, there are some general guidelines that most GALs follow in Virginia.
After a GAL is appointed, he or she will inform the parties of the appointment, and schedule an initial interview with each of the parents. The GAL may make a home visit to each parent’s house, and meet with the child in the home. The GAL should conduct an investigation such as contacting witnesses, school personnel, and health care providers.
In Virginia, the Judge may require the GAL to submit a written report. The Judge will specify when the written report should be submitted to the Court as well as the parents. The GAL is allowed to participate in the proceedings, file motions, and make an independent recommendation. The GAL is responsible for advising the child about the nature of the proceedings, the developments of the case, and the parties’ responsibilities. The GAL may urge that the child not testify, unless the testimony is necessary.
Again, it is important to remember that the GAL is an objective attorney who makes a recommendation to the Court. It is beneficial if the parents cooperate with the GAL and give him or her any information requested.