A Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) is an attorney who is appointed by the court to represent the interests of a child or incapacitated person. The GAL will conduct an investigation and provide independent recommendations to the court about the client’s best interests as well as inform the court about the client’s wishes. In order to determine the best interests of the client, the GAL will conduct interviews with relevant witnesses and parties, observe the client’s interactions with others, and make reports to the court based on their findings.
Section 16.1-266 provides the basis for appointment of GALs for both children who are before the court as a result of abuse or neglect. The statute calls for appointment of a “discreet and competent attorney at law.”
In a suit for guardianship or conservatorship of an incapacitated person, a GAL may be appointed pursuant to Section 64.2-2003. Again, the GAL is tasked with conducting an investigation, including visiting the respondent (the person alleged to be incapacitated) and advising them of their rights in the process. If appropriate, the GAL may recommend the court appoint an attorney to represent the respondent directly in the process.
Most commonly, GALs are appointed to represent the interests of children in disputed custody cases. Rule 8:6 of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Virginia defines the roles of counsel and of guardian ad litem when representing children as follows:
The role of counsel for a child is the representation of the child’s legitimate interests. When appointed for a child, the guardian ad litem shall vigorously represent the child, fully protecting the child’s interest and welfare. The guardian ad litem shall advise the court of the wishes of the child in any case where the wishes of the child conflict with the opinion of the guardian ad litem as to what is in the child’s interest and welfare.
In custody cases, every GAL takes on three main roles: advocate for the child, investigator, and witness. The GAL can inform the court of matters or issues not presented or argued by either party, allowing the court to have a better picture of the case.
In addition to speaking with the parents and the children involved in the case, the GAL will likely interview the children’s teachers, doctors, therapists, neighbors, or extended family members. The GAL will also conduct a home visit at each parent’s home. Most children will interact more openly and discuss their thoughts or concerns more fully with a GAL at home rather than at the GAL’s office.
A GAL also has an obligation to explain to the child, in terms the child can understand, the nature of the proceedings, developments in the case, and the court’s determination and its meaning. A GAL can be removed or suspended from the appointment list if they do not perform all tasks required of them or adhere to the standards set for GALs.