Judge’s report ‘backs value of independent social work witnesses’

Social work concerns over restrictions on use of independent practitioners as expert witnesses tempered by proposals from judiciary on implementing family justice reforms.

Royal Courts of Justice
The case was heard at the Royal Courts of Justice. Photo: Rex Features

Government plans to restrict the use of independent social workers (ISWs) as expert witnesses have been tempered by proposals today from the judiciary on implementing ministers’ reforms, say social work leaders. However, strong concerns remain that family justice reforms will reduce protections for children involved in care proceedings.

Today’s report from Mr Justice Ryder acknowledges the value of ISWs and provides a good framework for deciding when they should be used, said Philip King, of the Confederation of Independent Social Work Agencies.

Judges will receive guidance on what constitutes good social work practice as part of moves to ensure independent practitioners are only called as expert witnesses in care cases where “necessary”. A “framework of good practice” will be produced for judges to help them adjudicate on the content of social work evidence required for cases.

Six-month limit for care cases

The plans are designed to help implement the government’s agenda to reduce delays so most care cases take no longer than six months, in line with proposals from the Family Justice Review (FJR), which reported last November.

The FJR triggered controversy among social workers by linking the use of ISWs to delays and saying they should only be used in exceptional cases, given that courts would already be receiving social work evidence from the local authority and the children’s guardian. However, Oxford University research, published in April, found independent social work reports added considerable value to complex cases, supported welfare better decision-making for children and families and were mostly delivered on time. It also found that courts could be “severely hampered” in reducing cases to six months without the expertise of independent social workers.

Echoing the FJR, Ryder’s report said expert witnesses were “misused and over-used”, and that their reports were “disproportionately long on records and short on analysis”. However, King pointed out that today’s report also said there was a “place for independent social work” in advising the court on more complex cases, and highlighted the importance of the quality of expert evidence, rather than the quantity.

Value of independent social work

“There’s a lot of synergy between [Ryder’s report] and the Oxford University research,” said King, who is director of the agency ISWA Ltd. “It’s a very insightful and intelligent report looking at where practice can be improved.”

Alison Paddle, of Nagalro, which represents ISWs and court guardians, also suggested there may be benefits for independent practitioners in Ryder’s emphasis on high-quality evidence: “ISW assessments are often quite holistic. You may have a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but what the court needs to know is whether the parent is going to be a good-enough parent and [ISWs] really bring it together for the court.”

However, Paddle said there remained significant concerns that the government’s reforms would reduce judicial scrutiny of care cases and thereby undermine protections for children, due to the six-month time limit and a proposal for the courts to focus on the “core”, but not the “detail” of local authority care plans for children.

Legislative plans

In response to the FJR, the government will shortly make changes through secondary legislation to the Family Procedure Rules 2010 so that expert evidence is restricted to that which is “necessary”, rather than “reasonably required”, to resolve proceedings. The courts will also be required to consider, in deciding whether to call an expert witness, the impact on the child of a delay, the cost and whether the information could or should be provided by one of the other parties, such as the local authority.

Further reforms, including the six-month time limit and focusing the courts on essential issues rather than the detail of care plans, will be enacted through primary legislation in the Children and Families Bill, due to be introduced in early 2013.

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