A guardian at litem (GAL) represents the interests of infants, the unborn, or incompetent persons in legal actions.
A GAL, who is appointed by the court, is an adult legally responsible for protecting the well being and legal interests of a ward, who is usually a minor. A GAL is a unique guardian relationship created by a court order for the duration of a legal action. Courts appoint a GAL for persons who generally need help protecting their rights in court. Such court-appointed guardians figure in divorces, child neglect and abuse cases, paternity suits, and contested inheritances. They are usually attorneys.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the importance of the guardian ad litem grew in response to increased concern about children’s welfare. And an increase in divorce actions and greater recognition of the gravity of child abuse and neglect in creased the number of cases in which a GAL represented the legal interest of those most at risk.
Because states had generally modeled their civil court processes on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the role of the GAL was well established. But now, states began moving toward stronger legislation of their own. By the 1990s, many states had enacted laws specifying the guardians’ qualifications, duties, and authority.
The GAL has extensive power and responsibility, particularly in cases involving children, where he or she investigates, attends to the child’s emotional and legal needs, monitors the child’s family, and seeks to shield the child from the often bruising litigation. As officers of the court, the GAL compiles relevant facts, interviews witnesses, gives testimony, and makes recommendations about custody and visitation. They ensure that all parties comply with court orders.
Given the rigors of the task, which is often voluntary or low-paid, it is not surprising that courts have traditionally had difficulty finding adequate numbers of qualified individuals to serve as a GAL.
In the mid-1990s, the role of the GAL caused new concerns. Whereas many attorneys perceive a need for the GAL to be appointed in all child custody proceedings, others expressed caution about the risk of lawsuits. Particularly for attorneys serving as a GAL in divorce cases, this risk was high because parents upset with the result of a custody ruling might sue the guardian. Lawyers worried that the GAL system had become potentially dangerous for those whose rights it had been designed to protect, some of society’s weakest members.