The Child’s Lawyer – The Role of the Law Guardian (now called “Attorney for the Child”)March 22, 2009 - Author: Gary Port
The role of the child’s lawyer, previously known as the law guardian, now called “the attorney for the child” is very confusing, not only to parents, but the judges, lawyers and even to the law guardians. Recently, the role has been somewhat clarified by the passage of a new code of conduct for New York lawyers.
Under New York law, the judges in Supreme Court and Family Court can appoint a lawyer for children in child custody cases, or cases involving the safety of the child. The law guardian or lawyer for the children (the terms are interchangable, however, “lawyer for the child” is now preferred), is, quite simply the children’s lawyer. Where each parent has a lawyer to represent them, the court insures that the child also has a lawyer. This reason is that children’s interest may be different from that of one or both of the parents.
The classic example is the custody fight. Both parents want custody, and therefore it is clear that their interests are opposite. The next question is what is the interest of the child? Is it better for the child to be with the mother or the father? This is where the lawyer for the child steps in. S/he represents the child’s interest. No longer is it a two sided conflict, but a three sided one.
Lawyers for the child are also involved in orders of protection, neglect proceedings and matters involving foster care. In all instants, the lawyer for the child acts for the child’s interests.
The confusion about the law guardian’s role is whether she acts on behalf of the child or upon her belief as the best interests of the child. For example, what should the law guardian do if the child wants to live with the father, but the law guardian thinks that the mother is the best parent? Should she work to get custody for the father or the mother?
Should the law guardian blindly follow the dictates of the child client, regardless of age? If an abused 8 year old wants to return to the abuser, does the law guardian fight to enforce her client’s wishes, or fight to protect the child from an unwise decision?
The rule of thumb is that child up until age 12 have not real say in the matter. Child from 12 to 14 are listened to, and child 15 and over get their way. This is not written in any law or embodied in any judicial decision, but my perceptions of the situation.
But, as there is no law on the point, there is confusion on how the law guardian act. Hopefully, this will be answered on April 1, 2009, when the new rules of Attorney Professional Responsibility take effect. The rule which applies to this situation is 1.14 which says:
Client with diminished capacity
(a) When a client’s capacity to make adequately considered decisions in connection with a representation is diminished, whether because of minority, mental impairment or for some other reason, the lawyer shall, as far as reasonably possible, maintain a conventional relationship with the client.
(b) When the lawyer reasonably believes that the client has diminished capacity, is at risk of substantial physical, financial or other harm unless action is taken and cannot adequately act in the client’s own interest, the lawyer may take reasonably necessary protective action, including consulting with individuals or entities that have the ability to take action to protect the client and, in appropriate cases, seeking the appointment of a guardian ad litem, conservator or guardian.
(c) Information relating to the representation of a client with diminished capacity is protected by Rule 1.6. When taking protective action pursuant to paragraph (b), the lawyer is impliedly authorized under Rule 1.6(a) to reveal information about the client, but only to the extent reasonably necessary to protect the client’s interests.
Under the new rule the law guardian can act contrary to the wishes of the child, if it appears that the child’s decision is harmful. So, of the child wants to live with the father, the law guardian can advocate to the court that the child should live with the mother.