Court Rules Attorney-Client Privilege ≠ Colorado GAL-Attorneys
Last week, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the attorney-client privilege does not apply to conversations between guardians ad litem and the children they represent in child abuse, child welfare and custody cases. In Colorado, a guardian ad litem is an attorney appointed to represent a child who has been abused or neglected or is in foster care. They are also appointed for children are accused of crimes or involved in a custody fight.
In a very controversial 5-2 decision, the Court held that “because a child who is the subject of a dependency and neglect proceeding is not the client of a court-appointed guardian ad litem, neither the statutory attorney-client privilege nor ethical rules governing an attorney’s obligations of confidentiality to a client strictly apply to communications by the child.”
Justice Nathan Coats, writing for the majority, found that a guardian ad litem does not represent litigants on opposite sides of a case “or even the demands or wishes of the child. The guardian ad litem is statutorily tasked with assessing and making recommendations to the court concerning the best interests of the child.”
The underlying case, People v. Gabriesheski, involved a man criminally charged with abusing his step-daughter. While that case was pending, the department of human
services filed a case in juvenile court and an attorney was appointed as guardian ad litem to represent the child victim. During the criminal case, the prosecutors
attempted to call the GAL to testify about her private conversations with the victim. Both lower courts held that the conversations between the victim and her GAL were
protected by attorney-client privilege.
The Supreme Court reversed, basing its decision on the duty of a child’s attorney to protect his or her client from abuse; a lawyer acting as a guardian ad litem is supposed to help the court act in the child’s best interest even if the child doesn’t want the lawyer to reveal information.
The dissent wrote that “the majority’s decision deprives children of the right to legal representation. the impact of this decision will have devastating effects on the ability of guardians ad litem to fully represent the best interests of children in dependency and neglect proceedings. Because children will no longer have the protection of the attorney-client privilege, guardians ad litem will be required to disclose information about their wards even when it is not in the child’s best interests to do so. This outcome, which appears to be based on a generalization that a child is incapable of being involved in the legal process, is at odds with a child’s fundamental right to be represented in court, and fails to protect the legal rights of children.”
The Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit organization that provides legal advocacy for abused and neglected children in Colorado, stated that “this decision denies children in the Colorado child protection system effective legal representation by depriving them of the opportunity to have confidential conversations with the attorneys appointed to protect their best interests. The Colorado Supreme Court has decided that abused children are not entitled to one of the most basic benefits of legal representation, which is having a trusting, confidential relationship with an attorney.”
Jeff Koy, the director of litigation of the Children’s Law Center, who has served as a court-appointed GAL for more than 12 years, argued in this case that conversations between GALs and children should be protected. “Children have a right to be in a safe home and receive the treatment services they need. GALs are charged with ensuring that children are provided these protections. To do this effectively, children must be able to trust us,” said Koy. “They have to be able to
confide in us about where they feel safe and what happened to them without fear of having their confidences betrayed. Otherwise, the very people who abused them may
learn what the child said.”
“The children we represent have often been through horrific abuse before landing in state care,” Koy said. “They need someone to confide in. Until today, that person was their GAL.”
The old adage “hard cases make bad law” rings especially true in this case. As a longtime victim’s advocate and even longer-time children’s advocate, the tension between what’s best for your client and what should be done to keep your client healthy and safe thankfully does not often conflict. When it does, however, the implications can be far-reaching.
Many years ago I represented an eleven year old child in exactly the same situation. After an immigrant girl was removed from her home for alleged physical abuse, I was appointed as her “law guardian.” At that time the GAL role was ill-defined and unclear. My client denied the abuse and wanted desperately to return to her family.
When the judge asked me for my recommendation, I stated emphatically that my client wanted to return home. When pressed further, I informed that court that I was not personally or professionally taking a position on whether or not she should return home, but instead informing the court of my client’s expressed wishes. I explained that I had interviewed my client, her teachers and family friends; that my client was mature enough to have a position; that she understood the consequences of her decision; that she expressed her wishes to me clearly and repeatedly; that I was my client’s only voice in the court system and felt compelled to advocate for her expressed wishes and not her “best interests.”
Reluctantly, the court turned to the child welfare agency which was unable to substantiate any of the abuse charges and the case was dismissed allowing my client to return home.
I’m not sure how I would have handled the case if my client told me she was being abused. Understanding what I now know about victims, I can appreciate the fact that children rarely disclose physical and sexual abuse and when they do they should be believed.
When children do disclose such things to their attorney-GAL, there are legitimate and ethical ways to address any real or perceived conflict. The child’s attorney can ask that a GAL be appointed to represent the child’s best interest. The child’s attorney can ask the court to permit withdrawal based on “irreconcilable differences” which make the attorney-client relationship is unsustainable. The child’s attorney can counsel the client to an end result which keeps the client safe and preserves confidences.
What makes this case so unsettling is that the Colorado Supreme Court is directly requesting that an attorney reveal client confidences. This case is not about a “recommendation” or a request for “the child’s best interest.” It is a direct invasion into the relationship between the child and her attorney. It goes far beyond defining the role of an attorney-GAL to assaulting the very foundation of the now non-existent attorney-client relationship.
The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision strips a child from ANY advocate in the court system. It applies not only to sexual abuses cases, but to all cases involving a child including custody, child welfare and even criminal cases. Imagine a juvenile delinquency case in which the prosecutor can force the child’s attorney to testify against his or her client. Imagine a child custody case in which a parent can force a child’s GAL to testify about which parent the child prefers.
The Court’s decision here has far-reaching implications. It was ill-advised, ill-conceived and vastly over-broad. In solving one perceived problem (after all, we don’t know that the child client in this case told her attorney anything about the sexual abuse), it creates an untold number of complications with the end-result that children in the Colorado court system no longer have reliable advocates or an unconstrained voice.