Social workers told they cannot claim anonymity and threats are part of their job

Social workers are routinely threatened and suffer violence from
adults in bitter public law cases (ie those involving a local
authority) in which parents may endure a forced and permanent
separation from their children, and generally must regard this as a
part of their job.

Anonymity will only be ordered in highly exceptional
circumstances and on the facts of this case (Re W in the court of
appeal on 7 October 2002), it was inappropriate for the judge to
have made an order for anonymity in favour of a local authority
social worker where her personal safety seemed to have been at
This was an appeal by a mother from an order of His Honour Judge
McIntyre made in July 2002 where it was found that on 20 February
2002, the mother had been a passenger in a motor car driven by the
father of her two children. The specific issue arose in care
proceedings where the father had been violent and the children were
in the interim care of the local authority and staying with foster

There had been widespread concerns about the father’s violence
and dangerousness which had brought on the breakdown within the
family. Much of the professional concern was about the father’s
access to guns, his experience in using them and his repeated
threats to “do away with” himself, his family members, social
workers, guardians and professional experts, should he lose his
children at the end of the case.

In 2001, the local authority were planning that the children
should be adopted but in spring 2002 an independent social worker
thought that the mother and the two children could be rehabilitated
if supported properly, and if they all lived with the maternal
grandmother. The mother promised that she had had, and would
continue to have, no contact with the father and on that basis in
May 2002 a consent order was made for a residential assessment to
take place and a resumed hearing date was set for October
Coincidentally in June 2002, a social worker who had had been
involved earlier with the mother’s case learned that she was
with a man. The local authority legal department took a statement
from the social worker who said that by coincidence she and the
mother had both enrolled at a weight-loss clinic in the area, and
at the end of a session one day, as she drove away recognised the
mother in the front passenger seat of another car driven by a man
who was unknown to her.

The social worker informed the lawyer that the meeting had been
on 17 March 2002 but when it was later discovered that the mother
stopped attending the clinic in February 2002 revised her statement
accordingly. A photocopy of a photograph was shown to the social
worker and she identified him as the driver of the car. She was
then told he was the father.
The local authority, without notice, then applied to the judge
asking him to revisit the order for residential assessment. The
social worker’s statement was filed and served in June 2002.
The mother’s solicitors wrote to the local authority asking
for the identity of their witness, i.e. the social worker, and were
told that the witness would be present and would be behind a screen
if required. The social worker’s applied to give anonymous

The application was unsuccessfully opposed by the mother. The
judge gave a brief ruling in which he said that he had considered
parallel issues in relation to the criminal jurisdiction and having
balanced the fairness of proceedings against the mother with the
safety of the social worker, he felt that the social worker had to
give evidence behind a screen. The mother accepted that any attack
on the social worker’s evidence would not be on her
credibility, but her accuracy and recollection.
On appeal however, the mother submitted that the judge was wrong to
have allowed the social worker to have remained anonymous within
the proceedings relying heavily general guidance in the UK case law
and the 1996 Strasbourg human rights case of Dawson v The
Netherlands on the issue of fairness upon a defendant.
Allowing the appeal and setting aside the order, the two man court
of appeal held:

(1) It was generally recognised that social workers were
routinely threatened and suffered actual violence from adults in
bitter public law cases which may end with a forced and permanent
separation from their children. Social workers generally had to
regard this as a part of their job. The court of appeal did not
know of any cases where a local authority had sought anonymity for
a social worker and anonymity would only be ordered in highly
exceptional circumstances.
(2) In this case the court had to decide whether the judge was
correct to have made the order for anonymity. They thought it was
not justified because they did not regard this case as being
exceptional. The reality was that the mother would have realised
that the witness behind the screen was the social worker, because
she had not enrolled at any other weight-loss clinic, and had not
seen any other social worker there.
(3) The local authority had had the option to call the social
worker to give evidence that she had recognised the mother in the
car, not in relation to the driver’s identity. She could be sure of
that information because she had spent time with her in a
professional capacity and seen her at the clinic. This in itself
would have raised concerns which the local authority which would
have investigated as to the identity of the driver of the
(4) The judge therefore was therefore wrong to have conducted the
case in the way that he did, in relying on the social
worker’s identification of the male driver as the father. The
social worker had quickly looked through her car window into the
window of the car in which the mother was a passenger. She had not
had a clear view and had not made her statement about the incident
until some weeks afterwards. The social worker had not seen the
father before or since. She had shown that her recollection could
be wrong as she had originally stated that the incident had
occurred on the wrong date. The Court did not question the social
worker’s integrity and sincerity, and the judge was fully
entitled to have concluded that she had recognised the mother
beyond the possibility of error, but not the father.

The remarks of the senior judges confirms the view of social
work staff that the work they undertake can be difficult and
dangerous. Managers need to take note to ensure the safety of staff
wherever possible.

Bernadette Livesey

Human Rights Solicitor

Walker Morris Solicitors

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