Bureaucracy is undermining social workers’ ability to convince courts to take action in child protection cases, family lawyers have said.
The claim follows a report, which found that many councils felt judges were refusing child protection applications because of the low status of social workers in the court system.
Caroline Little, co-chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, rejected the claim that social workers have a low status in coutr. Instead she blamed council bureaucracy for undermining social workers’ authority in court.
“There is a significant line management culture in local authority social work where social workers are not entitled to make decisions without referring to a manager.
“This de-skills social workers and undermines their confidence [in court]. Courts need to see evidence from a confident, knowledgeable social worker who knows the family well and knows what they need.”
One independent social worker who regularly gives expert evidence said her evidence was often described as “persuasive” by courts.
But the high turnover of local authority social workers could result in inexperienced practitioners taking on cases “without adequate knowledge of the children and families involved”, she said.
“In this case, it is likely that their evidence may not be strong enough and this will come across in court,” she said.
Little said high-quality social work evidence was “regarded very highly” by the courts. She urged local authorities to ensure that social workers were “sufficiently experienced, supported and trained” to give evidence in court.
Margaret Wilson, chair of the Family Courts Committee at the Magistrates’ Association, denied that social workers had a low status in court.
“The weight given to expert evidence depends on its quality and the facts within it, not who gives it,” Wilson said.
“The welfare of children is paramount and courts make decisions based on the evidence before them. We have to justify our decisions, which must be based on reason. To suggest that courts give weight to evidence according to the status of the professional giving it is misleading.”
Meanwhile, Nushra Mansuri, of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), said social workers often became concerned “when courts order yet more assessments to be carried out by independent expert witnesses unnecessarily and at great expense to the public purse”.
Mansuri added: “In some cases we do think they are warranted but not where a local authority has done a good job in gathering and presenting the evidence. In the long run this is not in the child’s best interest, has the detrimental effect of undermining our professionalism and, in some cases, confidence.”
“Social workers must be recognised for the expertise they have in safeguarding children. Judges need to both acknowledge the limitations of their own knowledge and the breadth of social workers.”