Many divorces in Northern Virginia involve minor children. Issues such as child custody and child support bear directly upon the child’s welfare, but in many cases, the child does not have independent representation to ensure that these issues are fully litigated in their best interests. To remedy this, the Virginia court system appoints “guardians ad litem” (GAL). If a judge in a divorce case appoints a GAL for the children in the case, the GAL will act as the child’s attorney for the duration of the case. A GAL can also be appointed for an adult who is not able to understand or participate in the proceeding.
All GALs must be attorneys admitted to practice in Virginia. The GAL’s first duty is to meet face-to-face with the minor children involved in the divorce. The GAL must also investigate the child’s home life, health and health care, relationship with each parent, and any other issues that are relevant to the decision before the court. Information obtained in the investigation must be provided to the court along with the GAL’s recommendations on the issue before the court. The GAL must participate in pre-trial conferences, mediation, and settlement negotiations and ensure the child’s attendance when that attendance would be appropriate or compulsory.
The GAL explain the issues in the case in language that the child can understand. The GAL must also explain the court’s rulings in the case and show how the rulings will affect the child in the future. The GAL is responsible for preparing the child for all hearings at which the child will appear. The GAL must handle all appeals or secure the appearance of another GAL in all appeals in which the child has an interest.
Parties in cases involving one or more GALs must remember that the GAL is an attorney representing a client. As such, every GAL is subject to the Rules of Professional Conduct and cannot appear as a witness. While these individuals may be helpful to one’s position on child custody and visitation matters, sometimes their arguments are counter to one’s stance. Therefore, Virginians who are pursuing a divorce need to know how to deal with GALs and utilize them to their advantage.