Independent social work reports add considerable value in complex family cases and lead to better decision-making for children, research by Oxford university has found.
Published today, the research challenges the perception that independent social work (ISW) reports cause delay and duplicate local authority work, finding their reports provide mostly high quality, transparent, forensic and evidenced-based assessments.
It warns against policy change following the family justice review, which did not seek hard information on the use of ISWs. Moving forward without considering the evidence runs a high risk of failing children and increasing delay, the report stated.
The Oxford study – based on 65 cases, concerning 121 children, and 82 court reports over the 12-month period until March 2011 – found ISWs produce robust and fair assessments, which may speed up cases by reducing the likelihood of a contested hearing.
Although some information is reproduced, there is little evidence that ISW reports cause unnecessary delay, researchers found. Where ISWs agree with a council their reports underscore the authority’s recommendations, with an independent, transparent perspective, based on current circumstances and focused on the needs of courts.
Most ISW reports were delivered on time, researchers found, with any late delivery the result of purposeful delay, such as changes in the circumstances of the case. There was no evidence that proceedings are routinely delayed through the late delivery of reports.
There were some problems with the layout of reports, however, which made about a quarter hard to read. This issue requires further attention, researchers recommended.
The research challenges critical views of ISWs, including submissions to the family justice review, which blamed ISW reports for delay and duplication.
In its interim report the family justice review recommended ISWs should be used more sparingly, although the review panel later admitted it had “unfortunately and unintentionally” focused on ISWs above any other professional.
“At last we have an evidence base to give us a true indication of the value added to family court proceedings by highly experienced ISWs,” said Hilton Dawson, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers.
Philip King, of the Confederation of Independent Social Work Agencies, said the research highlights that courts may be “severely hampered” by a lack of access to ISWs.
“The government needs to urgently rethink its policy towards social work experts if it is to meet its own agenda for more decisive and speedier justice for the most vulnerable children within our society,” King added.
The findings come from the first stage of the Oxford research. The second stage is expected to investigate the true impact of ISW reports in complex family court cases.
Inform subscribers, find out more: Child contact in family proceedings: policy, practice, the law and the role of mediation