Representing children in high-conflict divorce cases

Legal Aid Alberta’s Child Representation lawyers have special training to help them serve children and bring their desires and wishes to the court.

Legal Aid AB
February 06, 2024

A family breakup is among the most difficult challenges we can face. Emotions can run high as communication becomes clouded and bitter. In court, judges put the best interests of children at the centre of decisions they make.

In highly charged situations where litigation has been going on for some time and people are unable to communicate in a civil manner, lawyers are appointed to represent the child’s wishes and desires to the court. 

That’s where Legal Aid Alberta comes in, with a uniquely qualified team of lawyers trained in child representation. LAA staff lawyer Elizabeth Turner spoke about this role with Global new anchor Vinesh Pratap on the February segment of Ask A Lawyer. 

Please view the video using Microsoft Edge web browser. 

Transcript of program: 

Vinesh Pratap: Family breakups are very difficult and complex, so it isn’t uncommon that parents who are separating or going through a divorce hire lawyers to represent them in court. What’s less commonly known is that in some cases   the children in these families are also represented by lawyers who make sure their wishes are known. With us today to explain when and how this works is Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyer Elizabeth Turner. Thank you so much for being here. 

This is very unusual – when I saw this I was like ‘OK – kids with lawyers.’ So let’s talk about it. As a family lawyer you sometimes represent children, so how does that work and what is the difference between representing children versus adults? 

Elizabeth Turner: Well certainly interviewing kids is a lot different than interviewing adults. You’re doing things like playing some cards maybe drawing and sometimes Lego and that’s just enough to keep the kids moving. and hopefully calm down the brain that help the kid feel more at ease and natural throughout the interview. And Legal Aid Alberta does have formalized training and also continuing education they require of their lawyers are on the child representation team. And it is our job to interview the child to make their wishes and preferences known to the court. And our clients can range in age from just starting to speak to 18 and anywhere in between. 

Vinesh: OK, you kind of answered the one question I have, which is what age do we start. So they could be fairly young – so how do you glean information from them to find out what they want in what is a very complicated and possibly messy process.  

Elizabeth: In high conflict situations there are several roles we can take and certainly two of the ones we use primarily are an Amicus role or a direct advocacy role. And the Amicus role is where you’re a friend of the court. You’re not necessarily taking instructions from the child but you’re making a more fulsome picture for the court. So you are bringing in things like medical records and health records and other collateral information so the court has a bigger idea.  

When it’s direct advocacy that’s when you determine you can actually take instructions from your child client and so you’re bringing those preferences directly to the court and you’re taking instructions from the child that includes listening to the child and making sure that you’re only bringing to the Justice what the child allows you to say.  

Vinesh: When a lawyer is required to represent the child does that in general mean it’s more complex case or there’s more high conflict? Can you take us through the process? 

Elizabeth: Usually children’s counsel is only appointed when there are high conflict so that means litigation has probably been going on for years at this point. It means the parties have probably had a breakdown in communication and an inability to even make fundamental decisions regarding the child and that there is probably some animosity as well so the court makes the determination that having the children’s voice in the court process helpful at that point. 

Vinesh: Aside from representing kids do you sometimes have to play the role of counsellor as well? You know, you’re doing with kids who might not fully understand what’s going on, their emotions are raging. How do you find balance in this process? 

Elizabeth: Certainly that’s where our connections to mental health professionals are important. You have to build that up in the community because we’re not the mental health professionals but certainly a lot of the kids benefit from having that help. So you have your support group around the child and that can include counsellors that you can access as well. 

Vinesh: A very complex process for a delicate situation. Elizabeth, thank you so much for coming in and letting us know the options available and thank you for the work you do with Legal Aid Alberta. Legal Aid Alberta lawyers specialize in family law, child welfare, domestic violence, immigration, and youth and adult criminal defence. If you have a question for a lawyer, send it to. [email protected] 


Previously on Ask a Lawyer 

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