There are three types of lawyers that a court can appoint for a child:
- Amicus attorney
- Attorney ad litem
- Guardian ad litem
The courts may appoint an attorney for the child in any of the following circumstances:
- When they find that the parents, guardian, or state representatives do not represent the child’s best interests.
- If the case is about termination of parental rights.
- If the case is filed by a government agency like the CPS (Child Protective Services).
The rules related to the appointment of an attorney by the courts for a child may vary between states. Here are some details:
1. Amicus Attorney
- An amicus attorney is appointed by the courts to provide themselves with legal services and help them ensure that the child’s best interests are protected in a custody case.
- The amicus attorney does not advise the child on the custody case, and therefore, the attorney does not have an attorney–client relationship with the child.
- However, the amicus attorney may share confidential data/information about the case with the child in certain circumstances and with the court’s approval.
- The amicus attorney recommends the best path to follow to protect the child’s best interests even if the child does not agree with the attorney’s suggestions.
2. Attorney Ad Litem
- The attorney ad litem is appointed by the courts to represent the child, maybe for a specific part of the case – for example, the child abuse part of the divorce case or maybe the termination of parental rights part of the case.
- This attorney provides the child with legal services and must do what his client desires – i.e., he has an attorney–client relationship with the child.
- If the child is unable to decide or is vague about his/her goals, then the attorney ad litem should do what he/she feels is right in the child’s best interests.
- The attorney ad litem is the third attorney in the case, with one attorney representing the father and another attorney representing the mother.
- The attorney ad litem must be loyal to the client (the child) and do everything to the best of his/her ability to help his client, the child, succeed. He/she can call witnesses (including the parents), examine them, object to statements made by other witnesses if they relate to the part of the case he was appointed for, and more.
3. Guardian Ad Litem
- A guardian ad litem (GAL) is a neutral investigator/protector appointed by the courts to protect the child’s best interests.
- Depending on the state, the GAL represents the child’s best interests, not the child. In some states, the GAL represents the child’s wishes, not necessarily the child’s best interest. The idea is that in representing the child, the court will gain the information necessary to make a decision regarding what is in the child’s best interests.
- To ensure the child’s best interests, the GAL usually starts by arranging a physical and psychological examination of the child to figure out if the child is fit to make decisions. He/she submits this report along with his opinion.
- If a guardian is proposed for the child, the GAL investigates whether the proposed guardian can serve the child’s best interests.
- The GAL has the authority to make emergency medical decisions and he/she can petition the courts to issue emergency or interim orders until a guardian is appointed for the child.
- The GAL investigates what is and isn’t in the best interests of the child. He/she then recommends the course of action to the courts.
- The GAL is often dismissed after the investigation is completed and the report is filed, although, many times the GAL will continue representing the child through trial.
The difference between an attorney ad litem and a guardian ad litem is that while the attorney ad litem represents the child legally, the GAL acts as the witness in place of the child.
The courts may appoint both an attorney ad litem and a GAL for the child, but one attorney cannot assume both roles.
After the attorneys are appointed by the court, they are likely to, depending on their roles as described above, meet and interview the child privately, get access to the child’s records (medical, school, etc.), be present at hearings, investigate the child’s best interests, interview people who are involved in the child’s life (parents, grandparents, child care professionals, teachers, doctors, etc.), visit the child’s home/school and interview people who are acquainted with the child, and do other tasks in the child’s best interests.
Summing up, the GAL does a more comprehensive investigation than the other court-appointed attorneys.