An attorney ad litem is a legal representative appointed by a court of law to represent an individual incapable of caring for themselves, such as a child or a mentally handicapped person. This legal position is most commonly found in the U.S. and U.K. The clients of an attorney ad litem can include children who have been orphaned, or who are the subject of child neglect and abuse cases, as well as the unborn, the disabled, and the interests of unknown heirs in cases pertaining to wills and trusts.
A guardian ad litem is another type of legal representative assigned by a court to represent those who may not be able to speak for themselves in family cases. The guardian is charged by the court to ensure that a child's needs, or those of a mentally handicapped person, are met, regardless of whether the individual agrees with the guardian's recommendations. The guardian may investigate the situation that has brought the individual to court, and then reports directly to the judge on his or her findings, with suggestions for action. An attorney ad litem's purpose is slightly different in that he or she is legally responsible for meeting the individual's wishes and representing only those wishes to the judge, even when they may contradict what seems best for the welfare of that individual.
This position is most commonly used in family court cases, in which a minor requires representation. In such instances, the attorney ad litem typically begins by ascertaining whether the child is competent in understanding the situation that has brought him or her to court. The child should also be made aware of the purpose of the attorney provided to him or her. Some regional courts set an age that the child must reach before he or she is deemed mentally able to meet with an attorney. Once the lawyer is confident that the child understands these two basic concepts, his or her objective is to discover what outcome the child desires and help, through legal counsel, to achieve that.
Attorneys typically receive their court appointments at the regional level. As a result, the requirements for becoming an ad litem may differ between regions. Many regions require these lawyers to complete additional educational courses related to representing children, after they have received their appointments. This requirement can be waived if the attorney already possesses relevant family law education and experience. An individual with a history of serving as an attorney ad litem may also be appointed, when possible, as a guardian ad litem, though he or she cannot fulfill both rolls in the same case.