For independent social workers, legal aid-funded court work is no longer sustainable

The value that social work experts bring to court proceedings is poorly appreciated by the government and the judiciary – legal firms need to be making the case, argues Eddie O’Hara

Court decisions
Photo: tashatuvango/Fotolia

by Eddie O’Hara

As a registered independent consultant social worker, I have for the last 17 years been providing a variety of courts throughout England and Wales with expert-witness family risk assessments to assist with process of safe removal or rehabilitation of children with their families.

Recently though – and not for the first time – I found myself writing to a local solicitors’ firm explaining why I can no longer afford to provide social work risk assessments for them on children and families involved in court proceedings.

When I first began accepting commissions from the firm, the thick end of two decades ago, my standard hourly rate was £35. At that time, most social work risk assessments took me between 75 and 100 hours from start to finish. Since then, with increasing costs, just to break even I now charge £45 per hour professional time and £35 per hour with travel time.

But since late 2010, expert witness fees for social workers have been capped by the Ministry of Justice-sponsored Legal Aid Agency (LAA) at £30 per hour (£33 in London). For most practitioners, working for these rates is simply not sustainable – and as a result, many have been looking elsewhere for their living.

Unfavourable comparisons

I sent my letter on a morning when I’d been to see my dental hygienist, who charged me £40 for 10 minutes. A few months earlier, when I was working on a care case for a local authority, I was in the High Court in London and the judge agreed lead counsel could charge £204 per hour. On top of this, for the upcoming two-week trial, which employed a number of other members of their legal team, lead counsel was allowed to charge £94 per hour for an administrator to be made available to answer their calls during the trial.

I’m a dual-qualified professional (as well as being a social worker I’m a former primary school teacher) with more than 30 years’ experience in social work, and have worked all over the world.

Yet, since the fee caps were imposed, I am expected to put my professional reputation and personal safety on the line for much less – and to complete complex assessments within 30-40 hours, after which the LAA’s funding runs out. (Unlike social workers, psychiatrists and paediatricians still attract hourly rates of more than £100 for their expert-witness services.)

I recently spoke about being an independent social worker at BASW’s World Social Work Day parliamentary event. I recounted my experience that, in spite of the many serious case reviews highlighting a lack of adequate and robust independent risk assessments of family life or options for children, there continues to be a complete lack of governmental and judicial acknowledgement of the value of such assessments.

I do continue to undertake a variety of court-instructed family assessments. But these are almost exclusively funded by local authorities, who even with their pressured budgets rarely bat an eyelid at my costs. That’s because they know that what I bring to the table in terms of professional insight more than compensates for any short-term costs.

Solicitors’ firms need to be pushing this argument of the value of using social work experts in court. If they don’t, clients will not receive the best service which, in turn, ensures better planning and outcomes for children and families.

Eddie O’Hara is an independent consultant social worker and chair of the Birmingham and Solihull Branch of the British Association of Social Workers.

10 Responses to For independent social workers, legal aid-funded court work is no longer sustainable

  1. Stressed April 13, 2017 at 10:12 am #

    Compared to LA social workers hourly wage (mine is £14.50 per hour) ISW ‘s don’t do too bad

  2. Tufan De April 13, 2017 at 10:36 am #

    Local authority employed social workers are also experts and get paid a lot less.

  3. Longtime SW April 13, 2017 at 11:03 am #

    Your outrage is justified. The lack of acknowledgement of social worker’s and social work in general, be it children’s or adult’s is shameful.

  4. Patricia McLoughlin April 13, 2017 at 12:33 pm #

    I agree with Eddie wholeheartedly. I retired from independent practice in 2013 after 37 years in child protection, and 22 years as a Guardian. My last case illustrates Eddie’s reasons perfectly. I assessed a very violent father for the court as the LA decided he presented a serious threat to their workers following threats of physical violence. Reaching conclusions in the report wasn’t the difficult part but engaging a violent and clever man sufficiently to provide the court with a proper reasoned assessment of his parenting and those of his sister required all my skills of engagement, assessment and interviewing. He was a complex charismatic character adept at “managing” social workers and the authorities. For this I received £30 per hr over 40 hours as there were two people to be assessed. This case followed hard on the heels of an assessment for the high court of two relatives on either side of a family where the father had murdered the mother. The fees for ISWs just do not cover this kind of work and for me, represent the low esteem in which such work is held by govt and the LEA. I didn’t want to quit but such work is unsustainable at legal aid rates. Many people I know have walked away from ISW work taking their decades of nuanced, highly informed skills and knowledge with them. No one seems to give a toss.

  5. Chris April 13, 2017 at 1:43 pm #

    Quite agree. I’ve also never liked the notion of an hourly rate for a fixed piece of work, and only ever work for a flat fee (inclusive of all expenses, court appearances, etc, and agreed in advance).
    Hourly rates make sense for a duty worker or a contact supervisor, where the time they spend is key to the job. But (to use the example of other professionals, like the author does), if I hire someone to do some work for me, I’d pay them *more* to do it quicker, not less.
    If I write a poor first draft of a report and need to spend extra hours rewriting, why should I be paid more for that? Similarly, if I plan my visits carefully, and/or achieve major analytical breakthroughs quicker than expected, why should I be paid less?
    I also don’t know how to accurately designate how many hours to bill for. If I stare at my computer screen having a mental block for an hour, is this billable? And if I go swimming and (as is often the case) develop my chain of reasoning or my interview plans in the pool, then is that billable? Or are we just paying people for ‘time looking busy’ which seems nonsense.
    Hourly rates also insult professionals like the author with years of expertise. If I hire the author to write an assessment, I’m not paying for the hours they spend on the case, I’m paying for the skills and expertise that they’ve spent years developing.
    To give a small scale example: I recently had a case with a specialist element I hadn’t encountered. I spent days researching the subject and taking advice from specialists. A while later, I had another case with the same element, where I was able to apply the knowledge I’d gained on the first case. It makes no sense to bill the first client for dozens of hours’ research, and not the second.
    The irony is that the LAA rules seem to agree tacitly: they give a maximum rate and a maximum number of hours. Multiple one by the other, add some reasonable expenses and there you have, effectively, a flat fee (note: I rarely see experts charging less than the maximum allowed). I agree that such a fee should be higher, but I’d strongly advise ISWs to insist on flat fee payments rather than hourly rates.
    In my experience LAs prefer flat fees since that provides clarity for their budgeting. If I then do a high quality piece of work in less time than expected, I’m rewarded for this. If I’ve underestimated and I take longer than expected, that’s my lookout. Social work is about much more than just efficiency, but we shouldn’t be actively punishing people for making the best use of time.

  6. Sarah Lowe April 14, 2017 at 9:50 am #

    I completely agree with Eddie. I too have over 30 years of experience and I have been doing parenting assessments for over 15 years. The capping was severe and placed social workers literally at the bottom of the professional expert scale….a profession which requires a multitude of skill sets and where the opinions we formulate can have a profound impact. Since 2010 the hourly rate of ISWs has not increased and there is seemingly no provision to gain a pay rise. The only change was the LAA stated travel time had to be charged at an even lower rate. The only way for the work to be sustainable as Eddie says is for LAs to fund the instruction or pay the top up. Personally I have no objection to fees being capped but this should be at a level which is appropriate to the skill level perhaps the same as a Nurse (£64)…or even an OT (£54) or a Disability Consultant (£54)

  7. e ohara April 15, 2017 at 7:39 am #

    Posted by author on behalf of Pat who’s comments have not been listed

    I agree with Eddie wholeheartedly. I retired from independent practice in 2013 after 37 years in child protection, and 22 years as a Guardian. My last case illustrates Eddie’s reasons perfectly. I assessed a very violent father for the court as the LA decided he presented a serious threat to their workers following threats of physical violence. Reaching conclusions in the report wasn’t the difficult part but engaging a violent and clever man sufficiently to provide the court with a proper reasoned assessment of his parenting and those of his sister required all my skills of engagement, assessment and interviewing. He was a complex charismatic character adept at “managing” social workers and the authorities. For this I received £30 per hr over 40 hours as there were two people to be assessed. This case followed hard on the heels of an assessment for the high court of two relatives on either side of a family where the father had murdered the mother. The fees for ISWs just do not cover this kind of work and for me, represent the low esteem in which such work is held by govt and the LEA. I didn’t want to quit but such work is unsustainable at legal aid rates. Many people I know have walked away from ISW work taking their decades of nuanced, highly informed skills and knowledge with them. No one seems to give a toss.

  8. Sally Attwood April 15, 2017 at 4:10 pm #

    It is good to read a robust article by an experienced social worker putting forward the facts of the matter – the Legal system massively undervalues and under pays social workers. I believe it is a factor in more experienced social workers deciding NOT to take up part time work after early retirement (ie before 65, soon to be pushing up towards 67)

    It is not only the legal system however – take a look at hourly rates recently posted by West Sussex for social workers qualified for at least 2 years to work in child protection, assessment, and children in need work. £32/33 per hour, while stating the worker had to be prepared to work alone, to possibly face aggressive behaviour and to handle their own administration – no £96 an hour for someone to answer the phonecalls! I decided it was not worth the stress involved for me to follow up their advertisement. However with the high costs of housing in the SE there will be younger social workers who will no have my luxury of deciding it isn’t worth it. perhaps that is what the Councils rely on?

  9. Sar Rosson April 17, 2017 at 3:07 pm #

    Try being an off site practice educator with no pay rise for 12 years and a 33% pay cut 3 years ago.

  10. Caroline April 22, 2017 at 8:30 pm #

    Yes nobody wants to work for peanuts but you all seem to be blinded by why you came to do the jobs you do. I thought you were here like me to protect children from harm and neglect. They should be number 1 priority not money. This is why so many children are left in harms way each year.