Social worker criticised by judge for using jargon in court report

Family court judge said written assessment called into question the practitioner’s ability to communicate with the family

Photo: WestEnd61/Rex

A social worker has been strongly criticised for ‘opaque’ language in a court report which the family involved would struggle to understand, the judge said.

The assessment of a grandmother as a special guardian for two children “might just as well have been written in a foreign language,” according to Judge Jeremy Lea, sitting at Nottingham Family Court.

Judge Lea said the social worker’s written evidence raised doubts over whether she was able to speak with the family on their “wavelength” while conducting the assessment.

A significant portion of his judgement in the appeal case – 17 of 64 paragraphs – discussed the presentation of evidence and analysis by the independent social worker who was appointed by the court to prepare the report, and by other social workers involved in the case. All the social workers were named in the judgement.

‘Commonalities’

The independent social worker had been asked to assess the woman who appealed adoption orders in order to put herself forward to care for two girls aged two and four. She was not their biological grandmother (she was the mother of the partner their mother had at the time of the older girl’s birth) but was treated as a grandmother by the courts.

The judge described her as “a simple soul” who had found the court proceedings difficult and struggled to understand what had been written about her.

He identified phrases such as “imbued with ambivalence” and “commonalities” in the social worker’s assessment as difficult to comprehend.

Jargon highlighted by the judge

The judge quoted paragraphs of the assessment where, he said, the language obscured the meaning:

“I do not intend to address the couple’s relationship suffice it to say it is imbued with ambivalence : both having many commonalities emanating from their histories that create what could be a long lasting connection or alternative relationship that are a reflection of this. Such is this connection they may collude to undermine the placement.”

“Due to [the grandmother’s] apparent difficulties identifying the concerns , I asked her to convey a narrative about her observations in respect of [the mother and father’s] relationship.”

Quoting the second paragraph, the judge asked: “What would be wrong in saying ‘I asked her to tell me’?”

He also questioned multiple uses of the word “interplay”, for example: “[the grandmother] clearly believes that paternity issues had a significant interplay on [the father’s] ability to say no to the mother.” He said the word ‘impact’ or ‘effect’ would be more understandable.

‘Over-professionalising’

Social worker’s use of jargon in assessments was also identified by Ofsted as an area for improvement in a thematic report released yesterday.

The report said: “In some assessments inspectors found that workers tried to ‘over professionalise’ their written work and consequently did not communicate their thoughts and findings well.”

The judge in this case stressed that he was not only concerned about the report itself being comprehensible, but also whether the social worker had been able to discuss issues with the grandmother so the woman could understand and feel able to express herself.

Judge Lea was critical of social work practice throughout the proceedings more widely – identifying frequent references to ‘risk’ with no analysis of what that meant “in practical terms”.

The judge also referred to the lack of independent analysis by the local authority social worker involved who, he said, had not carried out a proper assessment. Instead she had based her conclusions on discussions during contact visits when the grandmother’s attention was on the children. Her case notes had been written up after cross-examination during an earlier hearing, the court heard.

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24 Responses to Social worker criticised by judge for using jargon in court report

  1. pete mcgavin August 5, 2015 at 2:14 pm #

    While the judge is right to crticise the language used in this report ( if the extracts are anything to go by) its ironic that a member of the legal profession should choose to lecture a social worker about using opague language! Social workers are like many people in public services often guilty of using 6 words when 1 will do, sometimes just as a way of making sure that people know that they understand the jargon rather than they actually want to use it. But if there is one profession that likes to use 10 words where 1 will do, its lawyers and maybe the judge should begin closer to home before having a go at a social worker who – had s/he used plainer English – would probably have been told that the report wasnt sufficiently professional.

  2. Leigh August 5, 2015 at 2:42 pm #

    The judges use of language in describing the grandmother as a ‘simple soul’ is slightly patronising and demeaning.
    If one is to criticise use of language then endure that one’s own is appropriate. The judicial system in itself is an arena in which terminology is full of jargon.

  3. Roselyn Thompson August 5, 2015 at 4:08 pm #

    Judge Lea have a right to critised the Social Workers for using jorgan in their assessment. In my opinion working with children and their families is unique and using jargon or difficult words will caused much problems and mistrust with parents and their children. As a social worker I used words I know the family will understand and reply to the question asked. What social worker should remember they’re going into people’s home they should also take into account that most families can’t read and have poor communication skills, they’re vulnerable and frightened of Social Workers.We need to gain their trust and by adapt ourselves to their level. Social Workers practice is unique and we don’t believed that all theories is one side fit all. Our knowledge and practice base allow use to look in the wider families’ relationship and their upbringing.

    • bob August 7, 2015 at 5:10 pm #

      “also take into account that most families can’t read “… Bit of a sweeping generalisation here!!

      • Jill August 12, 2015 at 9:39 am #

        ” adapt ourselves to their level” says it all!

    • J. Lee August 8, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

      Having read Roselyn’s comments, I was a little down hearted because although I agree with her points, I think the language we use contributes to understanding and therefore it would have been useful for Roselyn to edit her own contribution which had grammatical mistakes. If we want other people to understand our attempts to communicate with them, then we must make the effort to communicate clearly and where possible, without careless mistakes.

    • Erin Maynard August 27, 2015 at 5:35 pm #

      Roselyn Thompson, in your first sentence alone, you made the following errors: *has, *criticize, *jargon, *his. So how about you stop commenting on the English language before you hurt yourself?

  4. Ali August 5, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

    It’s irrelevant whether a lawyer’s jargon is worse. We’re not here to compare how well we do against other professions. If someone is writing in such complicated terms, then they’re not doing it for the benefit of anyone involved in services or the people they’re working to protect, which is the ultimate goal of social work isn’t it?
    The social worker in this case might benefit from taking some creative writing classes to demonstrate her ability to use complex language, and keep assessments and reports fit for purpose by not overcomplicating them by pulling out a thesaurus.

    Criticising the judge’s right to say the social worker’s report was unfit in terms of language is missing the point. The fact is, it was unfit, and it wasn’t written in a way that promoted effective communication with anyone.

    • chesters August 5, 2015 at 5:43 pm #

      well said Ali. As a recently retired external examiner for social work qualifying and post qualifying courses in the UK, I’m sorry to say that social work students are often taught to write in this pompous, obfuscating, inflated manner. It’s meant to signal ‘academic credibility’ and is believed to carry impact and significance. Students, and qualified practitioners, are encouraged to write verbose and bureaucratic reports while at the same time criticizing ‘jargon’ !

      • Monners August 5, 2015 at 6:34 pm #

        Our SW Tutor at uni always advised, never over estimate the intelligence of the reader. Write something that most people could understand and it’s something I’ve stuck to at uni and within practice 🙂

      • TCB August 6, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

        Again, there is a need for SWs to ensure their plain English writing skills are adequate and recognised as essential to their credibility — with everyone.

        The Campaign for Plain English training should be mandatory.

    • Billy Elliott August 21, 2015 at 2:14 pm #

      I totally agree with Ali. For the judge to make his concerns known about the jargon is very relevent. One of the most important areas in all cases, as with this one is that all the people involved have a clear understanding, which the report should give.

  5. sissy akimodo August 5, 2015 at 6:07 pm #

    I am dyslexic and I would have struggled to understand the report judging by the excerpts I have read. What is wrong with writing in plain english I think people use 6 words when 2 or 3 will suffice because they want to feel important.

  6. Julie August 5, 2015 at 9:25 pm #

    I have been a social worker for 11 years and come from what I would call are humble beginnings.
    I could not understand the quotes from that statement.
    However when in Court I often find myself interpreting what the judiciary have said in Court and explaining the whole process to families. So both sides need to just speak plain English.
    Also if anyone once again critiques my report for it’s poor grammar I repeat my degree is in social work not English.
    Social Work is what I am good at.

    • TCB August 6, 2015 at 10:51 am #

      It is an essential skill of social work to be able to communicate in sound, basic and clear English. You don’t need a degree in English to do that (and such courses expect basic language skills to be in place for the sturdy of literature). It you are failing to have simple writing skills that a 15 yr old should have, then you should be embarrassed, not cockily complacent.

      Incidentally, the suggestion that ‘ creative writing’ is the answer is not helpful. We don’t want court reports in a florid or poetic style. That’s the wrong emphasis. I strongly recommend the Plain English Campaign’s training. It has a profound impact. It not only provides a model for writing simply and clearly but also works to improve clarity of thought and analytical skills. – but people need to get themselves up to a level of understanding of basic English first.

      It is a concern that your SW degree didn’t expect that – and what was the SWs supervisor doing letting such a verbose and unfit for purpose report to be presented to the court without challenge and correction
      ?
      If everyone writes badly it adversely affects their credibility. People inevitably think ‘if they can’t even write to the standard expected of a schoolchild, why should we trust them to get anything else right?

  7. Glynis August 5, 2015 at 10:22 pm #

    George Orwell said it is more intelligent if we can say things more simply. We don’t need big words and complex sentences to communicate well. We don’t need to hide behind complicated text, we need to write for all audiences. Therefore the simpler it is to read, the simpler it is to understand.

  8. Susan August 6, 2015 at 6:49 am #

    But this is not jargon it is bad English. It’s someone trying to sound posh.

  9. Kim August 6, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

    It’s very easy to jump on the band waggon and perpetuate a critique already given to this social worker. Social workers are now in a position where they do have to justify their position, their role and their profession; which is being debased by MP’s, other professionals and the media; further reducing its credibility with the general public.
    Some social workers may have developed a sense that they need to raise the profile of their profession by presenting their reports in a format that is more akin to that of the solicitors, or maybe not.
    What would be supportive and more productive is if we consider the wider context, looking systemically at the issue. Supporting this social worker is the role of their manager but we can use the information for self-reflection and personal development rather than using it to beat our colleagues.
    This report is only a snippet, it’s not the whole picture and needs to be treated with that in mind.

    • Kevin Thomas August 6, 2015 at 5:39 pm #

      Might the systematic or wider context conclusion be that some social workers try to sound more important than they fear other people consider them to be, by attempting a ‘high-falutin’ style of language, and make fools of themselves in the process? My own professional expertise is, in part, in literacy (I’m an editor) but, stepping beyond that, I wonder if the underlying issue here is social workers’ low self-esteem and lack of confidence in the presence of other professions — and perhaps in the presence of the people they are supporting, too. Social work’s PCF promotes being a ‘reflective practitioner’; perhaps language as an indicator of self-perception should be part of what is reflected upon.

  10. CK August 6, 2015 at 2:07 pm #

    ‘George Orwell said it is more intelligent if we can say things more simply. . .’

    As advanced in his ‘Politics and the English Language’ essay, which begins (thus):

    ‘Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.’

    The point being that complex or subtle ideas and concepts sometimes, for the sake of brevity and cogency, require complex or subtle language, what some people see as jargon. The skill of the expert communicator is to be able to also communicate such ideas and concepts in language appropriate to a variety of audiences. Sometimes a big or little-known word can serve the purpose of more, smaller and better known ones. The key is then making it known what that word means. I’m very wary of how anti-intellectualism is often dressed up as ‘plain English’ or, indeed, ‘common sense’.

    I would criticise the language used the by social worker in question not because it uses jargon, but because it is pompous, uses the wrong words and is rendered virtually meaningless as a result.

  11. Julie Doughty August 6, 2015 at 6:09 pm #

    I have read the article and all the comments with interest. Several good points have been made. Can I recommend that people read the judgment itself, as this does clarify some questions that have been raised:
    http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B102.html

    While I personally don’t feel comfortable about social workers being named in judgments, this is now normal, in accordance with guidance that has been given to judges.

    As a lawyer (now a university lecturer), my initial thought on seeing the newspaper headlines was: ‘Well, that’s a bit rich, coming from a judge …’ because I know that some court judgments can be extremely hard to understand. (And some law lectures, my students may say.) However, I think that on reading this judgment, an important point is being made. The ISW in question had previously been led to believe that the language she used was the right language for the court environment. She won’t have been alone in that, and what social workers don’t need right now is further demoralisation. So let’s try to look at this constructively.

    At the Transparency Project – http://www.transparencyproject.org.uk/ , a group of lawyers is trying to make family court cases clearer to the public. Are there ways in which the different professions can work together to encourage the use of plain, accessible language?

  12. Abigail August 10, 2015 at 10:16 am #

    When a social worker writes a court report it is not always in thier words by the time it reaches the court. From my experience by the time the manager and the legal department have had site of it and asked for changes to be made it ends up being a everyone’s report not the social workers.

  13. Paul August 10, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    Communication is the key I feel in this article. In any public service role we are required to be able to communicate on different levels so as to be able to be more effective with everyone we come into contact with. There is a danger when we “obscure” our meaning with “jargon” that we use the power that we have inappropriately. Indeed there may be some parallels in the safeguarding that we come across when in our roles and I am sure we would not want to encourage that.
    However, due to many reasons including vulnerability and confidence we might use words and acronyms to deflect our own insecurities. Maybe the judge would also be advised to select his wording more carefully in relation to a “simple soul”, very demeaning.
    Lets take this and adapt our work, learn from the remarks made and move on.

  14. kafele September 2, 2015 at 10:50 am #

    Really all this cry baby nonsense from professionals -get over it some of us do use jargons to increase our professional and written status which in turn can disadvantage/undermine our clients many of whom English is not a first language. A report/assessment is not only privy to those within the professional arena there are other lay persons involved-stop playing with words that even us as professionals have to Google to understand and write in a simply effective and well meaning manner. May I also remind you that many of our social workers hails from a range of varied backgrounds and countries etc. perhaps rather than be so defensive lets take the opportunity to reflect on our practice