Social workers want more support to provide “effective and confident” evidence to courts, a report commissioned by the Ministry of Justice has found.
The report found the use of experts in family court cases has declined by 48% since new guidance was introduced limiting the cases where additional expert evidence should be provided.
The research, which consisted of a survey and in-depth interviews with a range of professionals involved in the family court, found participants had identified advantages in local authority social workers providing the core evidence about families, such as their ongoing relationship with the family and familiarity with the case.
Levels of skill and confidence
“Despite this, concerns were expressed by many participants, including local authority social workers themselves, that not all social workers have received appropriate training, or were able to display the same level of skill or confidence as independently appointed experts,” the report stated.
Local authority social work assessments have been relied upon more heavily instead since the introduction of new Family Procedure rules.
These govern how family court proceedings are carried out.
The amendment to the rules in 2014 changed the threshold for appointing experts from “reasonably required” to “necessary” to resolve a case.
The research, commissioned to evaluate the impact of these changes, found judges, in particular, believed the new rules had led to a more effective use of local authority social workers and they were less likely to now use independent social workers as experts.
Independent social workers
But 57% of those interviewed, including social workers, either disagreed or strongly disagreed the new rules had led to a more appropriate use of experts.
Some judges interviewed pointed out local authority social workers may not have time to complete their assessments alongside other workload demands and argued the use of independent social workers was still necessary for that reason.
One independent social worker interviewed for the study said local authority social workers may find it difficult to present unbiased evidence:
“They’re there to support the family, yet they’re assessing to take away a child. So how do you marry up those two positions?”
Many of those interviewed believed social workers were being asked to provide evidence outside their expertise. Psychologists said assessments of attachment could not be adequately carried out by a social worker.
The report said: “Perceptions around whether the impact of the new rules was leading to a more appropriate or proportionate use of experts were mixed.
“Although survey respondents and focus group participants tended to believe that prior to the rule change, the courts were over-instructing expert evidence, some participants felt the use of experts had ‘swung too far the other way’.”