Taking a care case to court is, perhaps, one of the most stressful parts of a social worker’s role. It could be seen as a failure, in that it means all other intervention with the family has failed, but it can also be seen as a step along a path that will ultimately improve life for the child.
Despite discouraging statistics for the future of looked-after children, social workers and judges all cope with making this difficult decision – the most draconian available to the family courts – by hoping they are removing children from a future with even worse statistics.
Courts have an overriding duty to make the child’s best interests paramount, and that duty will nearly always clash with what the child’s family wants. It can, on occasion, also clash with what social workers deem to be the best interest.
So, once a case has reached court, it is vital social workers do their best to ensure the court is given all the information it needs, in the best available format. This will help the court reach the best possible decision for the child.
There are two main areas where social workers can help the court:
The writing of reports is a vital part of the work of any professional within family courts. Judges see these reports before they see witnesses and, although they are well used to, and expert at, reserving judgements until they hear oral evidence, much basic information is gleaned from these documents. Where cases become agreed, this will be all that judges ever learn about the case. Their consent to an agreed order will be given – or possibly withheld – solely on the information in such reports.
A Guide to Writing Reports for Family Courts gives invaluable advice as to what judges deem a good report, including advice on setting out preliminary details clearly, before discussing the required level of detail and placing of extra information, and suggesting clear and concise ways of conveying your concerns.
Judges need convincing of the need for removal, so the guide details the level of information necessary to convince the court that that is the best option. Judges must be certain and the report is the first – and may be the only – chance you have to convince them and to lay out the evidence to lead the court to the conclusion that you see as the best result for the child. It also covers the question of observed contacts and emergency removals.
Giving live evidence
Should cases become contested, court hearings are inevitable. These can become emotional and difficult for everyone concerned. Giving live evidence is one of the most stressful parts. It is when a social worker’s whole reasoning in relation to a particular case is called into question. The social worker is confronted by legal professionals, unfamiliar jargon and procedures and tearful parents, even without opposing counsel whose job it is to shake the social worker’s evidence and recommendations.
The Guide for Social Workers who Appear as Witnesses gives invaluable advice for how to handle contested hearings. Topics covered include preparing for the hearing, in the widest possible sense, with tips on how to enhance your chances of success. It explains how the judiciary works, before moving on explain how to cope with whatever the day throws at you. Valuable advice ranges from the very basic, such as dress codes, through to how to stay calm in the face of overly aggressive questioning by a hostile barrister.