New definition proposed for statutory adult social work

There is no definition of adult social work in law or guidance, but drawing on legislation and the Law Commission's review of adult social care, John Chamberlain and Angela Jenkinson have developed one

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Photo: Jeff Brackler/Rex Features

We wanted to arrive at an understanding of what legally constitutes social work in adult social care because the quality of social work practice can only be judged if it is clear what social work is. There is a lot of statutory guidance for children’s social work but not for social work with adults. The Care Standards Act 2000 does not define social work but refers to ‘relevant social work’. It defines relevance but it does not define social work and there is no legal definition of social work anywhere else. 

The Act’s definition of relevance is that the social work is required in connection with any health, education or social services provided by any person. The key word here is ‘required’. What required means is that it is required in law.  The duty to provide adult social care services that are required falls on local social services authorities. Relevant social work is therefore statutory social work, provided as part of a wider set of duties, which in the case of adult social care, are community care duties. 

The Law Commission recently reviewed the law on adult social care and presented its findings to Parliament in 2011 and so we drew from this work. The commission defined adult social care as the care and support provided by local social services authorities pursuant to their responsibilities towards adults who need extra support. They made it clear that social work is a community care service in its own right and that it is distinct from assessing and arranging services. 

In its review, the Law Commission set out a fundamental set of principles that must be borne in mind in promoting a person’s well-being. Some of the principles are those that would govern a normal relationship between a council and its customers but some go beyond that. There are sometimes difficult decisions to be made when judgements are required that change the nature of the relationship from a customer relationship to a best-interests relationship. Our premise was that this best interests relationship constitutes the social work relationship and that the community care service it delivers is the social work service.  

In our consultation, we proposed the following definition: 

“Relevant social work is the effecting of adult social care when a relationship is required which goes beyond customer boundaries.”

Professional social workers are registered by the Health and Care Professions Council as being trained and capable of doing relevant social work. A social worker is defined in law as a social care worker who engages in relevant social work.  However, there is nothing in law that says that only social workers can do social work, relevant or otherwise. Case law has determined that the quality of social work, no matter who does it, will be legally acceptable if it accords with reasonable practice accepted at the time as proper by a responsible body of social worker opinion.  The implication is that, as with all professions, what constitutes acceptable practice is determined by the profession and that failure to act in accordance may constitute a failure of duty of care.  Registration is a protection against a failure of a duty of care because it provides a reasonable assurance that the practitioner is capable of providing the service.   

Only relevant social work is required by local authorities but there is no implication that local authorities and other organisations should not also provide social work that is not required but is permitted.  The implication of the Care Standards Act is that social work that is permitted does not need the same protection as social work that is required.  The reasonable conclusion is that relevant social work should be provided by registered social workers but social work that is not required perhaps may not need to be. 

John Chamberlain and Angela Jenkinson, of Kingston University’s Centre for Quality Assuring Professional Practice in Community Health and Social Care, developed the definition for The College of Social Work.

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