In any divorce or custody hearing, it is of the utmost importance that a child’s interests are considered. To ensure a child is legally protected, Illinois has created the guardian ad litem position. A guardian ad litem, or GAL, is a volunteer attorney who acts as a third party investigator who reviews a child’s family situation. She presents a report to the court, which details her findings and presents her recommendation as to what should be done with the child. Depending on the circumstances of the case, you may need to request the appointment of a guardian ad litem.
Some Illinois judges will appoint a GAL in every case that involves custody, but most do not, since few attorneys are available for the position. An Illinois judge will consider appointing a GAL when the child in question is very young, parents have demonstrated dishonesty to the court, or child abuse is suspected. A judge may also appoint a GAL when he thinks a more in-depth investigation into the child’s background is necessary. A GAL has significant freedom in investigating the family -- especially since the attorneys of both parents have the right to cross-examine the GAL regarding her report.
Petitioning for GAL
If a judge does not appoint a GAL on his own initiative, any party seeking custody of a child may petition the court to appoint a GAL. When preparing the petition, you should state why the court would be able to arrive at a better decision for the child with recommendations from a GAL. Under Illinois law, you should discuss whether the current evidence is sufficient to enable the judge to make a decision, what other methods for gaining information about the child’s case are available and whether the parents can afford to pay for the GAL’s services. Once the petition has been prepared and filed, the court will hold a hearing on the petition. Non-petitioning parties with a claim to custody can object to the appointment of a GAL at this time.
A GAL has one goal, which is to ensure that a child’s best interests are looked after. A GAL is generally a good judge of character and can determine which parent is best suited to have custody. She is not affiliated with either side, so her findings or communications with either party are not privileged.
Disadvantages of a GAL
Generally, if parents have the financial resources, it will be their responsibility to pay for a GAL’s services. But the GAL does not work for either parent, and is not a friend or confidant. In some ways, a GAL is another judge, since her report generally carries significant weight with the court. As a result, you will need to treat every interaction with the GAL as if you were interacting with the judge. Try to be as courteous as possible and follow the GAL’s instructions.