Lawyers to become 'eyes and ears' of judges in new Family Law Guardian ad Litem pilot program

acastillo@bradenton.comJune 2, 2014 

SARASOTA -- Call them the "eyes and ears" of judges in high-conflict divorce and custody cases.

More than two dozen lawyers from the Icard Merrill law firm have signed up to be guardians ad litem as part of a new Family Law Guardian ad Litem pilot program backed by the 12th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida.

The program, directed by judges Lee Haworth and Charles Williams, will provide children caught in the middle of contentious cases in the Circuit's Family Law Division with guardians ad litem.

The judges co-chair the circuit's pro bono program. Haworth said he and Williams had a serious discussion about implementing the program last March.

"I can tell you it's been a long-standing interest," he said. "This is a new program to assist judges who are in the family divisions ... people going through divorces, fighting over custody of children who have never had the valuable services of guardians."

Of 35 lawyers in Icard Merrill, 26 signed up to provide pro bono service to the program. The lawyers, who hail from the firm's Sarasota and Manatee offices, will provide an independent voice for children in high-conflict divorce and custody cases. They will also investigate, report and make recommendations as to the best interests of the children involved.

"One of the problems that we as judges have in family court is that the advocates are usually for the husband or wife," Williams said, adding most high-conflict family law cases usually involve children.

"Because we don't have a gauge on what's going on outside the courtroom, the guardians are my eyes and my ears outside the courtroom," said Williams. "We're looking forward to it because it gives us a layer of protection that we currently don't have."

Stacy Dillard-Spahn, who has been a member of Icard Merrill since 2005 and authored the firm's pro bono plan in 2008, said she has never received resistance from lawyers to work pro bono.

"They're really anxious and excited to get started," she said. "They've been training and they're ready to assist the court."

On April 14, lawyers underwent a half-day training session at the firm's Sarasota office. The session was conducted by Dillard-Spahn, Judge Haworth, 6th Circuit Judge Jack Helinger, family law attorney Belinda Lazzara, long-standing family law attorney and Icard Merrill shareholder Jaime Wallace, Sarasota psychologist Brad Broeder and staff from local family court programs.

For now, appointments will focus on cases in Sarasota. Family Division judges Debra Johnes Riva, Rochelle Curley and Robert McDonald Jr. will make the appointments.

"We want to make sure that we have a program of quality before we roll it out to the rest of the Bar," Haworth said, adding it may take a year before the pilot program is expanded.

Alyssa Nohren, an attorney and shareholder at Icard Merrill based in the firm's Manatee County office, said the program is an opportunity that can fulfill her as a mother, wife and lawyer.

"The need is there and it just interested me personally and professionally to get involved in this," she said. "The goal is to keep the child out of the courtoom, but still give the judge enough information so the judge can make a good decision in the best interest of the child."

For Williams, the program is an added tool in the judges' toolbox to assist in making the right decisions. The 12th Judicial Circuit covers Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.

"There are always money issues and property issues," Williams said, "but really the issues that keep us judges up at night are children -- those are the real difficult decisions to make."

Amaris Castillo, Law Enforcement/Island Reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. You can follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.

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