Court fees ‘insult’ to independent social workers

Hundreds of independent social workers could be forced to stop giving expert evidence in court, following “insulting” government plans to slash their fees.

Proposals from the Ministry of Justice and Legal Services Commission would see independent expert social workers’ fees capped at around £30 per hour by October 2010, while other expert witnesses, such as psychiatrists and psychologists would be entitled to £70-£100.

Independent social workers’ fees would be less than some experts’ travel expenses, said Alison Paddle, spokesperson for guardians’ body Nagalro, who called the proposals “insulting”.

“An independent social worker’s assessment is one of the core assessments that courts base decisions on, but it will be economically unfeasible for many to exist on the rates being proposed,” she said.

Paddle said it was “entirely inappropriate” for the fees to be capped at lower rates than other expert witnesses. “Independent social workers run their own businesses and pay their own pensions, yet neither this nor their expertise is recognised by these new fees,” she said.

Halved fees

One independent social worker said: “This will halve my fees and seriously dissuade me from taking on this type of work. It shows what the value of social workers is to the government.”

David Barnes, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, said the proposals would result in a “withdrawal of independent social work evidence and expertise” which could put children at risk.

He said that if the proposals went ahead courts would be forced to ask other professionals to undertake social work assessments at higher rates.

“We will also see the loss of an important role within social work. Practising as an independent expert social worker is one of the only ways social workers can continue to practise while increasing their earnings and improving their career development,” Barnes said.

Loss of a key role

He said many social workers aspired to be expert independent social workers. “The loss of this key role has the potential to undermine the entire social work profession.”

Both Nagalro and BASW are lobbying the government to scrap proposals which are part of a government review of current fee arrangements for professional expert witnesses.

Paddle said it was “not at all clear” how decisions had been made or why a previous consultation on the fees paid to expert witnesses had “excluded social workers” and suggested capping other expert’s fees at far higher rates.

Paddle said the proposals, and the “noticeable absence of any reference to social work” in previous consultations, did “nothing whatsoever to promote social work at a time when the government is talking about raising the standing of the profession”.

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