The process of determining custody of minor children in a divorce or a paternity situation often involves a Guardian ad Litem. What in the world is a Guardian ad Litem, and why is one needed, is the topic of this blog piece. Begin armed with information and understanding is essential to be able to navigate the custody process with some peace of mind.
In addition to the parties and their attorneys, Guardians Ad Litem (GALs) are an integral part of the judicial system intended to accomplish the goals of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (IMDMA), which is structured to protect and promote the best interests of children in a custody proceeding. A GAL serves a valuable role as the investigator and information gatherer for the judge. Judges are not allowed “to step down from the bench” and participate in the process in our American system of justice. Judges must remain detached, neutral and arms-length. This is where a Guardian ad Litem comes in.
A GAL is appointed as the court’s witness. He or she is directed by the judge to conduct whatever investigation the judge deems necessary. A judge, generally, does not interview the children or interview the parties directly to gather information. Conventional wisdom suggests insulating the children from the litigation process if at all possible. Having a GAL talk with the children is generally better than requiring them to appear in court.
A GAL can gather and provide information the judge regarding the parties and the children that is objective and unbiased to supplement the more biased information provided through the parties’ attorneys. The GAL is also able to talk with other people, such as teachers, doctors, counselors, etc., and summarize those conversations for the judge without requiring those people to appear in court.
The GAL presents his or her findings to the judge orally in court and/or in a written report. Depending on the direction from the judge, the report usually describes the investigation, summarizes the information obtained and includes findings, observations and (very often) a recommendation. The GAL’s report and recommendation (if any) are not binding on the judge, but judges usually place a high degree of weight on the GAL’s report because he or she doesn’t have any interest in the proceeding and is, therefore, neutral and objective.
Due to the limitations on what a judge can accomplish from the bench, the GAL’s role is important in the efficient workings of the judicial system. The GAL’s role is an important cog in the wheels that make up the judicial system for this reason. GALs also serve in cases involving adoptions, guardianship cases and similar matters as well.
A GAL is able to investigate the circumstances of all the parties and help insure the best interests of the child are considered. A GAL is a very efficient way of protecting the best interests of children without taking up an undue amount of the judge’s time, burdening the overcrowded courtrooms and costing a lot of money. Facts and circumstances can be uncovered and investigated without the use of judicial resources. The in-depth and detailed investigations that a Guardian ad Litem can do would not happen if those investigations had to be conducted by the judge.
Without the involvement of a GAL, lengthy hearings would often last over multiple days involving more biased information being presented by the parties’ attorneys, and all the third parties that a GAL interviews would each be required to testify in court. The GAL can summarize the findings of the experts in a way that is admissible in court without requiring them to be there, saving judicial resources and saving the parties the cost of subpoenaing the testimony of all those witnesses.
Locally, in Kane County Illinois, substantial training is provided through the Kane County Bar Association for GALs who serve in family cases, juvenile cases and probate matters to help ensure that the weakest and most at risk members of our society, the children, have their best interests properly represented in court. Judges typically don’t appoint people who are not experienced or don’t have the training.
For anyone going through a custody dispute, it’s important to understand the role of the Guardian ad Litem and take interactions with the Guardian ad Litem seriously. A GAL is the eyes and ears of the Judge. In future installment, we will address how to work with a GAL in your custody case.
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