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Social work terminology: Service users or clients?

Allan%20Norman%2060.jpgby Allan Norman

The question of language and terminology is particularly pertinent to us at Celtic Knot, as we are both social workers and solicitors. By convention, social work has “service users”, but solicitors have “clients” – even though solicitors, too, are essentially offering a service. Yes, to be clear, solicitors have clients. Historically clients have predominantly been the rich and powerful, and only since the welfare state have extended to also include the poor and vulnerable to any significant degree. But they do not appear to see the term as derogatory. The director of a publicly listed company, the celebrity in a libel case is happy to be the client of their solicitor.

Indeed, in the language of law, clients “retain” solicitors (keep them available for future use), “instruct” them (tell them what to do); “brief” them (instruct them to act as advocates); “terminate” the relationship (sack them)! The language does not have the passivity of “using their services”; clients actively manage the services they receive.

So unless the term “service users” is intended to reinforce the inferior quality of the relationship, and the lack of control service users have over the management of their social work services or the choice of social worker, can anyone enlighten me why social work has favoured “service users”?. I hope that social work doesn’t intend to use language to reinforce barriers to participation. But since Celtic Knot believes in choice – we’ll use whichever term you prefer!

Allan Norman is Principal Social Worker & Solicitor at Celtic Knot, an independent law firm and social work practice.

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2 Responses to Social work terminology: Service users or clients?

  1. Lynn 12 April , 2013 at 12:13 am #

    Personally, I see the term ‘service user’ as mildly derogative. Maybe it’s the word ‘user’, which has mostly negative connotations. I much prefer the term ‘client’, which I feel offers a certain amount of dignity to the person involved with the service. Connotations associated with this word are those of the person having some degree of choice and of working in partnership with the service.

  2. andrew duckworth 12 April , 2013 at 12:13 am #

    A Care Manager, purchases services for their clients from a Service Provider. The Clients then become the Service Users.

    When in the future the clients purchase their own services, will they then become the service providers clients or customers?