Compromise legislation unanimously passed Friday night by the Senate and House would set new standards for the appointment of lawyers named by the courts as guardians to oversee the interests of minor children in divorce and custody proceedings.
The legislation requires the courts to provide families with a choice of 15 lawyers as guardians. It instructs judges to consider issues such as financial circumstances, language barriers, transportation issues and the proximity of a guardian’s office to the residence of each parent.
The family court system has been the subject of intense, often emotional complaints by parents who say some court-appointed guardians ad litem and counsels for minor children have been heavy-handed in dealing with parents, while running up exorbitant legal bills.
“The bill seeks to address the broken divorce court system,” said Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, who complained that families can go bankrupt with legal fees for guardians. “Many times the parents are not able to see what they are being billed for. They have to pay on faith without question.”
Gonzalez, who acknowledged she has had trouble working on the issue without becoming emotional, thanked a Republican senator, Len Fasano of North Haven, for working with her to develop a compromise that attracted such broad support.
The issue has generated heated rhetoric.
“We have been harmed and taken advantage of by attorneys for minor children and guardian ad litems who enjoy immunity, are deemed infallible, and who have played God, judge and jury with our families and our children, while trampling our basic rights to due process, our civil rights, and our rights to be parents for our children,” the Connecticut Coalition for Family Court Reform said in public hearing testimony submitted last month.
Even some critics of the system had expressed dismay by the tenor of the criticism of GALS, as the guardians ad litem are known.
“We have become increasingly concerned about the broad attacks on the system, which have accused judges, lawyers, and GALs of cooperating in a corrupt system for the purpose of enriching each other. We believe that those charges are incorrect and that they are already undermining the availability of GALs by driving them out of the system,” Raphael Podolsky, a lobbyist for the Legal Resources Center of Connecticut, said in his testimony.
But Podolsky also urged reforms such as greater standards and transparency in setting deadlines and establishing fee schedules.
In the 2012 fiscal year, Connecticut courts issued decisions in 14,159 divorces and 3,623 custody cases, according to the state judicial branch.
People involved in the system say most cases are resolved before trial, and often without guardians ad litem. But they say that having one can be critical in informing a judge who otherwise would have to decide between the conflicting accounts of two parents. In addition, some say, GALs can help calm conflicts and produce agreements.
But critics say guardians ad litem often take on a role that should be left to parents. They say some parents must tap into retirement funds or children’s college savings accounts to pay GAL fees, which can add up to tens of thousands of dollars or more.
And some say the way guardians ad litem are paid — billing by the hour, with no cap — gives them an incentive to prolong conflicts while leaving parents with little choice but to pay.
Gonzalez, who insisted last month that the court system could do fine without guardian ad litems, struck a conciliatory pose Friday night, but she warned that the newly passed legislation was only a first step.
“I hope to be back next year,” she said.