After all the acrimony surrounding the debate over guardian ad litem reform, the final votes in the General Assembly were unanimous. And the results led some lawmakers and advocates to suggest that the legislation granting expanded rights to parents in divorce and custody proceedings may be only the first step in a larger overhaul of Connecticut’s family courts.
On Friday, April 25, the Senate voted 35-0 and the House of Representatives voted 129-0 to send to Gov. Dannel Malloy a bill that gives parents a greater say as to who will represent their children in contententious custody cases. It also would give the parties to a family court case legal standing to seek the removal of guardians. Further, it would require the presiding judge to spell out in advance the scope of a guardian ad litem’s work, deadlines for completion and fees.
“The Judicial Branch stands ready to implement changes to the guardian ad litem system, pursuant to Senate Bill 494, which the legislature approved Friday,” Chief Court Administrator Patrick L. Carroll III said in a prepared statement.
The votes were the culmination of a long-simmering battle by unhappy parents, some of whom claimed that they had been driven to the edge of financial ruin by GAL fees that had run into the tens of thousands of dollars. The parents, most of whom are representing themselves in divorce cases or have already done so, showed up in force before a task force that was examining family court issues late last year. They similarly made their presence felt at hearings in recent months before the legislative Judiciary Committee.
An estimated 80 percent of the family court cases in Connecticut have at least one pro se party.
The rancorous debate drew the attention of Chief Justice Chase Rogers, who authored an opinion column in the Hartford Courant supporting changes in guidelines governing GALs. A number of pro se parents and lawyers, including the president of the Connecticut Bar Association, submitted opinion columns to the Connecticut Law Tribune. Members of the legal community largely supported the GALs, saying the lawyers took on extremely difficult cases, seldom collected the big fees that the critics complained of, and did an excellent job of looking out for the rights of children in emotionally traumatic situations.
Some GALs reported receiving threats from parents. Others said they would not take on new cases.
The parents, meanwhile, argued that the Connecticut system for choosing GALs was too cozy, with judges choosing the same handful of lawyers time and time again. The parents also accused those guardians of frequently ignoring the rights of parents and prolonging custody disputes in order to drive up legal fees. The parents pointed out that they had no way to formally object to a GAL’s or to ask for his or her removal.
The parents didn’t get everything they requested in the legislation approved Friday, which fell short of recent sweeping reforms in several other states. But they applauded the vote as a good start.
“We did it,” Peter T. Szymonik, one of the most vocal parental advocates, said in email to other supporters. “Not a single representative or senator voted against it. More importantly, every representative and every senator who spoke about this bill and the problems in our state’s family courts mentioned that this is just the first step, [and there is] more to come. Step one is done and the work continues.”
Residents must complete a six-week course in order to qualify as a GAL. Most, buy not all, of the 1,000 or so qualified guardians ad litem are lawyers. Parents and members of the family law bar agree that about 70 attorneys get the bulk of the GAL work in Connecticut. Until now, the power to choose guardians rested with the presiding judge.
The new legislation requires the courts to provide families with a choice of 15 potential guardians. In making appointments, judges are to consider issues such as financial circumstances, language barriers and how far each parent lives from the guardian’s office.
Judiciary Committee co-chair Sen. Eric Coleman said the legislation a “significant step forward” and said it would “add some structure” to the system by clearly delineating what the guardians’ role is, how much they are to be paid and who oversees their work. Coleman noted that for the first time parents would have legal standing to seek the removal of guardians.
“This has been a point of great contention and insistence by the advocates of reform who were frustrated because some of them … believed some guardians ad litem were biased, retaliatory, and they even felt at times that the system was corrupt,” Coleman said.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said the legislation is a modest first step toward fixing a system “that has fallen apart.”