Appearing in court is part of the job for social workers, yet many are uncomfortable with presenting evidence. Louise Tickle provides some basic advice on avoiding the pitfalls
Social worker evidence to family courts has come under scrutiny lately. A report from Loughborough University, commissioned by the Local Government Association, found councils were convinced that the low status of social workers in court meant some necessary applications for care orders were being refused and children put at risk.
Although the Magistrates’ Association denies any bias against social workers as experts, lawyers suggest that the rigid bureaucracy and line management within social work teams undermines their credibility in court.
As the number of care applications rises, Stephen Cobb QC, chair of the Family Bar Association, says social workers need to remember that, just as any other professional, they should be prepared to be challenged on their views.
But giving evidence is an area social workers often struggle with, according to Clare Seymour, former senior lecturer in social work at Anglia Ruskin university and co-author of Courtroom Skills for Social Workers.
“Many social workers don’t understand how the legal system operates, court rules, legal language or the purpose of cross-examination. They feel uncomfortable about the need to invoke the law at all to resolve social issues, which can result in them mistrusting lawyers and lead them to adopt a defensive or sometimes a confrontational approach.”
Yet appearing defensive under challenge will almost always damage the credibility and impact of evidence, she adds.
Sue Blair, chair of Gwent Family Proceedings Court, advises social workers to keep in mind that the court’s intent is not to undermine those giving evidence but “parents have representatives who not only have to do the best for their client but also have to be seen to be doing that.” She says judges will be looking for credible witnesses able to support the application order convincingly.
“Sometimes when you’re reading a report, it’s obvious the author has used cut and paste,” says Blair. “That doesn’t go down well. Nor is it good when you feel that people are not prepared, because everything follows on from that.”
The key to giving social work evidence properly is balance, suggests Cobb.
“It is vital that, where positives exist in a family situation or where credit can properly be given in describing even the most difficult of social work and family relationships, this is articulated to the court,” he says.
“If positives can be recognised and expressed, concerns and potentially damaging evidence about a family has greater integrity and carries greater weight.”
Seymour adds that fairness to all parties is also vital. “This means being open to a range of possible courses of action rather than sticking rigidly to ‘the party line,'” she says. “It may also mean presenting facts which do not support the original opinion or recommendation. Social workers have been criticised for being selective in what they present to court.”
If case records are inadequate, social workers are likely to run into difficulties during cross-examination Seymour says.
“Social workers who have not re-read their witness statement or updated themselves on other reports immediately before the hearing are at risk of becoming muddled or confused. Good supervision supports the kind of critical analysis of decision-making which will help ensure that it stands up to the scrutiny of cross-examination.”
Social workers are not being got-at when a court presses them to justify details in their written report, insists Blair.
“It’s really that things are being clarified for the sake of the child, because these are such serious matters which can have a life-changing effect.”
Case study: ‘You have to accept that people will have a go at you’
Janet Foulds: Derby-based social worker with long experience of court evidence
In the early days I felt scared about going to court. It’s very public scrutiny of your work, and because of that I think it’s always one of the most frightening parts of our job. It’s right that we’re called to account and that people who are in very difficult situations have the right of challenge, but when you’re standing on your feet in a witness box, it doesn’t feel comfortable.
What I didn’t know then is the different roles that people take in court. It’s a bit like a theatre. You have to learn what your role is in that arena, and the expectations of the task. Often there’s a row of five or six barristers, all representing different people, and they all have a go at you. In a family court, there’ll be an advocate for the child, there might be another for each parent, one for the guardian and a local authority advocate – and each has their own areas to ask you about.
I remember one solicitor telling me on a training course, “if they can’t undermine your evidence, they will try to undermine you”.
And beware of possible traps, like when barristers try to whip you into a frenzy.
The language you use is very important. I was told off once by a judge for using the word “disclosure”, and was told, “you may not use that word because it presupposes there is something to disclose”.
One bad experience was when I was in court with another social worker. Her work was, to be honest, open to scrutiny – there was a lot of vagueness about it. So when she was asked things like “can you tell me when that happened?” and the answer was repeatedly “no, I can’t”, she got hammered and the judge made some pretty heavy comments about her. I felt sorry for her, but it makes you realise that this is about being absolutely credible and reliable.
I still feel anxious before going into court, even after all this time, because I want to do a job and get it right, but overall I feel okay. You have to develop a professional coat, and it’s not personal and in fact they can give you a terrible time and still think you’re very good, but of course they won’t tell you that.
● Know the file. Always ask yourself in advance of giving oral evidence “what is the evidence which I rely on to support the contention I make?”.
● Don’t speak in generalities about a family’s functioning, difficulties, abuse or neglect; it is vital that a social worker gives focused, evidence-based answers.
● Respect the expertise of other professionals in the proceedings; some social workers seek to challenge other expert witnesses without possessing relevant, comparable experience.
● Don’t be worried about giving a short answer if that is all that’s required – don’t feel you need to fill the silence which follows.
● Don’t speak in social work jargon.
● Ask for clarification of questions if necessary.
● Expect the unexpected – taking matters out of chronological order or asking the same question in different forms are tactics used in cross-examination.
● Control the pace by taking enough time to consider your answers.
● Admit mistakes .
● Although you cannot normally refuse to answer a question, no-one can force you to say something you do not wish to say.
● Beware of agreeing too readily with apparently innocuous propositions; listen carefully to the question and do not answer questions that are not asked.
● Use notes with care, since anything referred to in court is usually made available to all parties.
We are giving you the opportunity to receive a free copy of Community Care Inform‘s guide to help social workers who appear as witnesses, authored by two judges, and to find out more about Inform, email: