About Us

General Background

Article 60 of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 provides that, in any case involving specified proceedings [specified proceedings are defined in Article 60(6) of the Order], the Court shall appoint a Guardian Ad Litem for the child concerned unless satisfied that it is not necessary to do so in order to safeguard his or her interest. The Guardian Ad Litem shall be appointed in accordance with rules of Court and shall be under a duty to safeguard the interests of the child in the manner prescribed by such rules. Similar provisions in relation to adoption cases are contained in Article 66 of the Adoption (Northern Ireland) Order 1987.

In Northern Ireland, the appointment of Guardians Ad Litem (GALs) in specified proceedings is an entirely new feature of our children's legislation. Although the appointment of a GAL in adoption proceedings has been a feature of the Adoption Order for some years, such appointments were formerly made by means of special arrangements between the Northern Ireland Court Service and Health and Social Services Boards. No independent GAL Service, as is now required by the provisions of the Children Order and the Adoption Order (as amended by the Children Order), has hitherto existed.

The Need for a Guardian Ad Litem Service

The need for a Guardian ad Litem service was first identified in England in 1973 following the death of a child, Maria Colwell. Maria had been the subject of a care order and living in foster care with relatives. Maria's mother applied for the order to be revoked and for Maria to be returned to her care. The local authority social workers did not oppose the revocation of the order on Maria and she was returned. Maria tragically died in her parents' care and there was a Committee of Inquiry appointed to look at the lessons which could be learned from the child's death.

The Committee of Inquiry concluded-

"had the views of an independent social worker been available to the court it would have had the assistance of a second opinion which might or might not have endorsed the conclusions and recommendations contained in …(the social work) report."

The tragic events surrounding Maria's death led to many significant developments in the procedures for protecting children at risk of abuse. The recommendation that in such cases an independent social work report would assist the court in determining the best outcome for the child, was a major step.

The role of the Guardian ad Litem was extended in England and Wales to include children subject of adoption, freeing for adoption and a range of care and related proceedings. In 1989 the introduction of the Children Act expanded and enhanced the role of Guardian Ad Litem making it possible to appoint a GAL in all specified proceedings and retaining the role of the GAL in Adoption Proceedings.

The law in Northern Ireland relating to children changed in November 1996 under the Children (NI) Order 1995. Under this legislation, Guardians ad Litem were to be appointed in all cases where children were subject of specified or adoption proceedings.

Composition of the Agency

The Panel Regulations give the Agency powers to establish a panel of persons who can be appointed by a Court in cases involving specified proceedings, as defined in Article 60(6) of the Children Order or in adoption proceedings. Thus, when appointed to a case by a Court, the GAL is an officer of the Court. The appointment will be in accordance with Rules of Court or Adoption Rules, and he or she shall be under a duty to safeguard the interests of the child in the manner prescribed by such rules. GALs may be either employed by NIGALA on a salaried basis (either full-time or part-time) or on a self-employed basis and remunerated by means of fees and allowances, to be set and paid by the Agency. The Agency’s responsibilities are, thus, limited to the establishment, organisation and management of a panel of persons from which a Court can appoint individual members to act as GALs.

The Agency has a pivotal role in ensuring that the Children (Northern Ireland) Order is implemented as intended. The provision of an effective and efficient GAL Service is vital if the Children Order is to operate satisfactorily. It occupies a similar role under the Adoption (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 in that it brings an independence and objectivity to the task of safeguarding the interests of the child.

Having regard to the vital nature of the Agency’s role, the Department took great care in the appointment of the Agency’s Board. Its main aim being to ensure that the small membership should be well balanced in terms of legal and professional social work expertise combined with considerable business acumen.