What Does a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Do? – Ohio Child Custody

For a parent involved in a child custody case, GAL may become the three most important letters in the world.

Who is a Guardian ad Litem?

A Guardian ad Litem (GAL for short) is a person appointed to represent the interests of a child. The GAL does not represent either parent, or any other party other than that child. A GAL is usually an attorney, although Ohio law (specifically, Ohio Rule of Juvenile Procedure 4) does not require that a GAL be an attorney. A GAL in Ohio must pass a six hour course provided by the Ohio Supreme Court or by the Ohio CASA/GAL Service Association.

Role and Rights of a Guardian ad Litem

In a child custody case, a GAL will often be called upon to conduct a full investigation on behalf of the child—including but not limited to interviewing both parents, speaking with the child (if the child is old enough) and examining school records/other relevant evidence—and then draft a report recommending who should receive custody and why.

The GAL is supposed to apply the law to the relevant facts when making a custody recommendation. While the presiding judge or magistrate (an attorney appointed to act on behalf of a judge to conduct hearings) has the discretion to make whatever decision he/she believes to be correct based on testimony, facts and the law, the reality in many courts is that the GAL’s recommendation weighs very heavily in the ultimate custody determination. The GAL is required to attend all hearings related to the child custody case and can be questioned on the stand regarding the GAL’s methods and recommendation.

Many parents in high conflict situations may not realize that the outcome of their child custody case—probably the most important and emotionally wrenching case that they will ever face–could pivot largely on the opinions and recommendations of a GAL who might spend just an hour in person with each parent.

The cliché about not getting a second chance to make a first impression applies here, with a vengeance. If you are having a bad day when you meet with the GAL or if you are distraught because the other parent has not let you see your child for months and the GAL interprets your behavior negatively in terms of your fitness to be the custodial parent then that first impression could have a permanent impact on your life and your child’s life.

The use of and power wielded by GALs has expanded greatly in recent years and this development has been criticized as circumventing the intended function of the courts: “The idea that a child must have a guardian ad litem is a curious one. For good or ill, we have an adversarial legal system. We strongly embrace the belief that the clashing presentation of stories from each of the parties will uncover the truth.” (“The Curious Case of the Guardian ad Litem,” University of Dayton Law Review Vol. 36:3, p. 352).

Contact Anne Harvey at anne@anneharvey.com if you have any questions about how the appointment of a GAL could affect your child custody case.