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Guardian ad Litem vs. Judge In-Camera Contested Custody

guardian ad litem

 

Contested custody cases requires the use of “unconventional” methods with respect to gathering facts to help it made rulings.  The parties to the custody action can appear pro se, where they speak for themselves, or by their lawyers.  But children’s interests must also be given considerable consideration with respect to custody and visitation.  This is routinely accomplished by the use of a guardian ad litem as their voice or by them speaking directly with the judge.


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GAL as Child’s Voice

GALs are typically used as the voice of the child in contested child custody and visitation cases.  The guardian ad litem is supposed to be an impartial, objective person who represents the child in high conflict custody cases. (The ABA standards for GALS Statutory Provisions For Guardians ad Litem )They are responsible for advocating the “best interests of the child” standards for their client.  They are often appointed by the court, either at its discretion or either party’s request, to report to the court the best interests of the child. They are lawyers, social workers or any other qualified professional appointed by the court.  They use several measures to gather evidence, explore allegations and to report to the court based on these.

Judge In-Camera Interviews 

The alternative to a GAL reporting to the court, the court can speak directly with the child(ren) in custody cases.  In some instances, the judge can conduct an “in camera” interview where he/she speak directly to the child in closed court (or in judges’ chambers) with a recorder or court reporter present.  The thing with in camera though, is that judges are reluctant to conduct these. They’re reasoning is that children are fragile and should be shielded from the dissension involved with custody battles. In fact, there are very few instances where a judge would voluntarily subject a child to the emotional and mental turmoil of litigation.

Guardian Ad Litem vs. Judge In Camera

Each state has a age limit for when a child can express their preference with respect to which parent they would like to live with.  Children under 12, generally, do not have a “say” and thus the GAL is most often the sole source used to help the court to make it’s determination. Children 12 or older, on the other hand, may have the option to speak for themselves.  Even though older children can speak for themselves,  the extent to which they are permitted varies. The amount of weight given to the child’s preference, varies from state to state and from case to case.

Advantages to Either Option

In some instances, it’s beneficial to opt for a GAL, as opposed to an in-camera, no matter the age of the child. For example, in custody cases where there are allegations of alienation or manipulation then a GAL may be best suited to speak on the child’s behalf.  The GAL will take the time to meet with the child; speak with each parent and/or their attorney  (if they deem it necessary); talk to teachers, medical and mental health professionals who have worked with the child; review necessary reports, notes, etc. and whatever else they need to devise an adequate report for the court.

However, in cases where in cameras are permitted then this is the better option in other cases.  In cameras, however time constraints is a big issue.  In addition, the attorneys’ input is limited as they are usually only allowed to submit a list of questions to ask the child in lieu of their actual presence.  The GAL is the only other person permitted in the in-camera, as their job is to ensure that their client’s rights are not violated by the court. The major advantage of in camera interviews though is that the whole proceeding is recorded and the parties have access to the minutes of the recording.  This can a major strategic advantage for either side when preparing for trial.  GALs do not have to record any such interviews with their clients and therefore, are not required to make any such recordings available.

In conclusion

The point is that in some cases the parties don’t have a choice, they must rely on the input of a GAL instead of an in camera.  And although they might have the option to avoid both, they should understand the limitations and benefits.

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