Deprivation of liberty assessments are taking 50% longer to complete than official estimates, research suggests.
A survey of more than 500 practitioners found Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (Dols) cases could vary significantly in complexity but took an average of 12.1 hours to complete. The government’s official estimate, used to inform proposals for reform of deprivation of liberty law currently in development, is eight hours.
The survey was carried out by Cornwall council’s Dols team. It was completed by 507 best interests assessors (BIAs) working in England and Wales.
BIAs are specially trained staff, mostly social workers, who coordinate Dols cases. Care homes and hospitals make Dols referrals to councils to get legal authorisation for care placements they believe could be a deprivation of someone’s liberty. Each Dols case involves six assessments, on the basis of which the council will decide whether a person is deprived of their liberty and, if so, whether or not it is in their best interests.
Local authority Dols teams have experienced a sustained surge in cases since a March 2014 Supreme Court ruling. The ‘Cheshire West’ judgment effectively lowered the threshold for cases requiring Dols authorisation. Caseloads increased from 13,715 in 2013-14 to 137,540 in 2014-15 as a result.
Respondents to the Cornwall survey raised concerns that the Supreme Court ruling had increased the pressure on practitioners to complete assessments more quickly than statutory time limits, where standard cases should be signed-off within 21 days and urgent referrals within seven days.
One in four respondents (26%) said their local authority had set ‘time standards’ for completion of Dols assessments, with an average limit of 10 hours. Several BIAs felt the time they were given was inadequate and led to them having to complete assessments outside of working hours. A number also argued that the time standards led to a focus on the quantity rather than quality of assessments.
One said: “This can’t be rushed and nor should it be, the risk of time standards outside that of the statutory scheme is frankly dangerous, risking ‘corner cutting’ and poor professional judgments.”
Another warned: “Since Cheshire West, I believe that BIAs are being pressured in to taking short-cuts and do not scrutinise the records or validate the information as thoroughly as they have done previously.”
An analysis of the survey findings concluded that BIAs were “advocating strongly” for reasonable assessment timeframes. The practitioners also attached great importance to their independence and understood the “significant impact” on the people they assess, the report found.
Paul Wilkins, the Dols manager at Cornwall council, said he hoped the survey findings would help teams plan resourcing levels for the future as they grapple with the implications of Cheshire West.
“We wanted to get some sort of measure about how many staff might be needed to complete the number of cases potentially on the books,” he said.
“Every Dols service will have a bit of pressure from both sides. You have the local authorities understandably hoping to do as many assessments as possible but you also want the assessors to feel they are able to do the job properly and protect people’s rights.
“A lot of BIAs get into the job because they value the process. They are very committed. They feel like, as one person described it, that it’s ‘proper social work’. No-one wants to set unrealistic targets that risk people burning out. I was really assured by how committed those responding to the survey were to ensuring people’s care arrangements had proper scrutiny.”