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Court appointed special advocates are people appointed by a judge in a court of law to represent the interests of a person who is unable to represent his or her own interests. In other words, a special advocate speaks for someone who cannot speak for himself, giving that person a legal voice. It is common for the court to appoint an advocate in child custody cases or incapacity hearings.
When a court case occurs, every person whose interests are affected is supposed to have a voice. This is true in every country that provides basic human rights protections. In the United States, for example, the right to have a voice in court is guaranteed in the Constitution under the Due Process Clause, which stipulates that no person may be deprived of life, liberty or the pursuit of justice without due process of the law.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the capacity to speak for himself in court. Minors, for example, are not considered capable of expressing their own interests. While minors may sometimes be put on the witness stand to testify, the court assumes that, in general, children do not know enough to determine their own needs or to be a legal advocate for themselves.
As such, the court protects children by naming court appointed special advocates where appropriate. This is common not only in custody cases, but also in cases of child abuse or in situations where the court believes the parent may not have the child's best interest at heart. Court appointed special advocates may also be appropriate in cases where a third party disputes the parents' decisions on behalf of their child, such as in cases where medical professionals disagree with parents about the appropriate course of action for treatment.
Advocates are not only appointed for children, however. Anyone who does not have the capacity to represent his own interests may have a guardian ad litum appointed. For example, a person who is mentally disabled or suffering from dementia may be appointed a guardian ad litum in cases where someone seeks power of attorney over the disabled individual's assets or seeks to gain custody of the disabled individual.
The qualifications for court appointed special advocates vary by jurisdiction. In some countries throughout the world and some states of the United States, guardian ad litums must be attorneys or solicitors. In other areas, social workers serve as court appointed special advocates.
People might think that special advocates are a frivolous part of our legal system but they really perform an important function in ensuring that everyone gets equal justice. For many people navigating the legal system with expert counsel there is no need for a special advocate. But not everyone has this luxury.
The foundation of our legal system is that everyone has the right to representation and no one is denied a voice in court. Even in cases where guilt or innocence is cut and dry the process of trying a case and going through all the legal hoops is necessary to ensure that the process maintains its integrity. It is when we begin cutting corners and ignoring the voices of the under privileged that the ideals of our democracy go out the window.