Robbins: Children’s legal representatives in family law
What would you do if I sang out of tune?
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song.
I will try not to sing out of key.
Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.
— Paul McCartney and John Lennon
CLRs are like that.
A CLR — child’s legal representative — may be thought of as a “friend” to difficult proceedings before the court when a minor child or minor children are involved.
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So what, exactly, is a CLR?
Formerly known as a Guardian Ad Litem, a child’s legal representative is an attorney appointed by the court to represent the best interests of the child. Note that the lawyer does not represent the child him or herself, but, instead, the CLR represents the child’s “best interests.”
Whereas a Guardian Ad Litem was previously appointed to represent the children, the change in terminology accompanied a shift in role. The CLR’s client is not the child, but the more nebulous concept of “best interests.”
The distinction may be subtle.
Sometimes, children cannot, or are reluctant to, express their opinions in a court of law. As but one example, a child may not want to “take sides” against divorcing or divorced parents. While at times, it may be appropriate to investigate underlying psychological issues or the child and/or the parents, at other times, it isn’t.
In such a case, having a lawyer or a legal representative for the child is more appropriate than what may be more intrusive measures (such as engaging a child and family investigator or a parental responsibilities evaluator which, along with parenting coordinators and decision makers, I’ll discuss in an upcoming column).
The court will typically appoint a CLR in a case in which there are disputed parenting issues. Alternatively, either party may request legal representation for the child or children.
While the distinction between the “child” and the “child’s best interests” may seem subtle, imagine a teenager who wants to live with one parent, to move with one parent, or to reduce his/her time with one parent. The CLR is not a mouthpiece to parrot the child’s wishes. Instead, s/he may well reject them, in effect saying that the teenager does not know what’s good for him or her.
Consider this: Say a teen wants to live with Mom who looks the other way when rules are broken. She lets our boy skip school, vape, and create a bit of mischief. Dad’s house rules are less lax. While the child may wish to live with mom, so doing may not actually be in the best interests of the child. While the CLR will take the child’s wishes into consideration, he or she is not bound to uphold them. The CLR may say, “Nah. The child’s wishes are not the healthiest for our little darling.”
The CLR actively participates in the case. Unlike a CFI or a PRE, s/he is not a neutral expert who can testify. The CLR may write a report, but then, as with any other attorney, at a hearing, the CLR examines witnesses and argues on behalf of the child’s best interests for a certain outcome.
When the purpose is to have a vehicle for an older child to express his/her views, a CLR may be a more efficient option than other parenting experts.
When a CLR is appointed, one can think of the action going forward with three separate interests and three separate “camps.” The first two camps may be the mother’s and the father’s, each armed for battle with their own lawyers. The third might be the child or children whose interests are represented by the CLR. Each interest will be separate and distinct and advocated on behalf of each of the separate parties by their respective counsel.
State law and local court rules govern the appointment of CLRs. In appropriate cases, the court itself may appoint a CLR or, alternatively, either of the other parties may request a CLR’s appointment.
Unfortunately, many family law matters are “high conflict.” This may be particularly true when children are involved and tensions may be further heightened when the parents have different outlooks, parenting styles and agendas. Often, the kids are caught in the middle and may find themselves without a “voice.” This is when the CLR can step in and with a hopefully calm hand, access what may be best for the welfare of the child(ren).
While the parties may hiss and spit and claw, wreaking havoc as they go, by means of engaging a CLR, the children’s interests are removed from the maelstrom and are protected moving forward in the court proceedings.
With a little help from a CLR, children of divorce or other conflict may truly get by with a little help from their friends. And in so doing, their welfare is sheltered and preserved.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody and divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address, email@example.com.