By HH Judge Lynn Roberts and Helen Bonnick
We were saddened by a recent piece in Community Care, which talked particularly about the status and treatment of social workers in the family courts.
The piece’s author, Sophie Ayers, made a number of points – supported by comments underneath – which reflected a sense that individual social workers are blamed for the system’s failings.
The difficulty of completing assessments in time; the experience of being humiliated by other professionals and not supported; and the level of intimidation faced even before entering the courtroom were all addressed.
It was clear also from her writing that, despite the challenges, she is an experienced professional who still holds tight to the hope that her intervention can transform the lives of those with whom she works, and this cry from the heart is a wish that things could be better rather than the voice of despair.
Most judges and magistrates who are hearing public law cases recognise that the changes of the past few years have increased the pressure on social workers, and most of us are conscious of the need to make the courtroom a place where all concerned are treated with respect and are listened to fairly.
While we cannot speak for the structural and systemic issues facing social work at this time; we know that it is a time of great upheaval as timescales are changed, while budget cuts and reorganisation affect morale and the ability to do what is required.
Sometimes this means that not everything has gone smoothly, that tasks remain uncompleted or reports have been written late at night. We ask social workers to perform one of the most important jobs there is, in circumstances that often seem stacked against them.
They are required to be sensitive yet challenging, supportive while investigative. Undermined at every turn, and yet still they carry on because of their professionalism and determination to give children the very best chances in life.
At the same time we do expect directions about when reports are to be filed to be adhered to, because of the legal requirement to complete cases within 26 weeks. It is the responsibility of the social worker’s manager to enable that to happen by, for example, not overloading the practitioner.
Respect must be at the heart of all we do in court. The experience is stressful for all parties and we need to understand the impact this has on the way people hear and respond to what is said. So judges start from a position of assuming everyone has done their job and done it to the best of their ability and fairly.
This means that court reports must include the positive comments about a parent’s abilities, as well as concerns and criticisms. As one of the commenters on Ayers’ piece said, this shows compassion and care.
It is now accepted practice for many, but still not all. All players are asked to treat each other courteously in court and people should be thanked for their contribution. When reports are clear and concise the job of everyone is made so much easier, and so judges should always make a point of commending this.
Court in this country is adversarial, albeit with inquisitorial functions. It is right that people should be held to account for the assessments they share and comments they make, and we would all understand the importance of a fair voice for parents. But it is rarely necessary that this should stretch to personal derogatory remarks from any party.
The tension is often extraordinarily high in court as life-changing decisions are made, but it is the duty of the court and the professionals to work to the highest standards, so that those decisions are the right ones for the children whose futures we are deciding.
It is important for the social worker to listen to and trust the legal advice they receive, as it is the lawyer’s role to put the social worker’s evidence into a legal context and give objective legal advice; sometimes the outcome the social worker seeks is not achievable or a compromise is appropriate.
The opportunity for, and standard of, training for court appearances has grown tremendously over recent years, whether in the preparation of reports, or the giving of evidence.
This must be a fundamental expectation for all social workers within the court field, as must the offer and availability of good management and supervision.
Is it important that managers are present in court? We often see this and many people benefit from knowing they are not alone. But more important is the preparation beforehand, whether with managers or counsel. This is the route to confidence – confidence that all that is necessary has been done, and confidence in presentation and response.
One aspect of the recent reforms is the recognition that the child’s social worker is an expert in their own right and that usually no other expert is necessary.
We hope Sophie Ayers and her colleagues will accept that this reflects the respect in which the child’s social worker is held.
Judge Lynn Roberts is the Designated Family Judge for Essex and Suffolk. Previously she was a District Judge at the PRFD after many years as a solicitor, mainly acting for children.
Helen Bonnick works as a social work Practice Educator in East London and blogs about children’s violence to parents.