As any Virginia parent who fights a child custody battle discovers, all court decisions regarding custody are made with the best interests of the child in mind. In the majority of cases, courts use this standard in awarding child custody to one or the other parent, or joint custody to both parents. Sometimes, however, a court may have to appoint a different party to be responsible for the child. This guardian ad litem - literally, guardian for the suit - is typically an attorney appointed to assist the court in determining a child's best interests in a specific legal proceeding.
A guardian ad litem may conduct interviews, carry out investigations, act as a mediator and attend court hearings. Under no circumstances can GALs be summoned to court as witnesses. A GAL's primary responsibility is to provide independent recommendations regarding custody. Because GALs advocate only for the best interests of the child, any decision made by the court is likely to reflect the GAL's advice.
Courts often appoint GALs in cases in which children are suspected of being abused by a parent or when the termination of parental rights is being sought by the state. A GAL may also be appointed if a child declines the custody of either parent, seeks social and economic emancipation or is being put into foster care, or if the original child-custody decision is under review.
Attorneys who serve as GALs are subject to rules of professional conduct as established by the Virginia State Bar. If there is any conflict of interest on the part of a GAL working on a particular case, a request for a different GAL may be submitted to the court.
Source: Courts.State.VA.us, "Lynchburg Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court: Custody, Visitation and Support," Accessed on May 21, 2015