Social workers could be threatened, subject to press vilification or held publicly responsible for child protection failings if government plans to remove their anonymity in family proceedings go ahead.
That was the warning from social work and family justice leaders following the long-awaited publication this week of plans to open up the family courts.
Under the Department for Constitutional Affairs proposals, which are subject to consultation, the media could report the names of social workers and expert witnesses, though not the children and families involved, in all proceedings, unless the courts directed otherwise.
But Ruth Cartwright, British Association of Social Workers professional officer for England, said: “If social workers’ recommendations are not accepted by the court there may be a danger that members of the public will take the law into their own hands or we will have more of the vilification we have already.”
Alistair MacDonald, joint chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, said: “There are real risks that a particular social worker may take the fall for a particular local authority or the family justice system in general. I suspect that particular idea may be revised over the next couple of months.”
Cartwright called on social workers to lobby courts to impose reporting restrictions on identifying them should they feel they are at risk – though not if they merely lack confidence in their practice.
The consultation paper admits that removing anonymity for expert witnesses could deter them from giving evidence.
Other proposals under consideration include giving adults access to information on proceedings they were involved in as children, to help them gain a better understanding of what had happened to them.
This was backed by Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service chief executive Anthony Douglas, who said:
“This represents genuine new ground compared with now, where both parents and children can walk away from court unsure about what’s happened.”
Confidence and Confidentiality: Improving Transparency and Privacy in Family Courts from www.dca.gov.uk Consultation ends 30 October.
BOXTEXT: Proposals for family courts
All family proceedings, except adoption, open to the media, though not the public, unless courts specifically exclude them.
Right to report proceedings if anonymity of children and families protected.
New specific criminal offence of publishing information likely to identify children or families.
Should social workers giving evidence in family court proceedings retain anonymity? Go to www.communitycare.co.uk to vote. Last week 70 per cent of visitors to www.communitycare.co.uk stated that the public sector should have a duty to promote religious tolerance in the wake of the findings of the Zahid Mubarek inquiry.