Lawyers hit out at court fee cap on social workers

Magistrates and lawyers have criticised government plans to cap the court fees of independent social workers. In an...

Magistrates and lawyers have criticised government plans to cap the court fees of independent social workers.

In an attempt to reduce the legal aid budget, the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Services Commission (LSC) decided the fees of independent social workers (ISWs) who provide reports and evidence should be capped at about £30 per hour from October 2010.

This decision was made separately to the current, ongoing consultation to review the fees of expert witnesses in court cases.

Other expert witnesses such as psychologists are currently entitled to up to £100 per hour.

Charles Hale, specialist family barrister and chairman of the public affairs committee at the Family Law Bar Association, told Community Care: “The effect of the cap will be that ISWs of any seniority simply won’t do public cases. There are plenty of private cases they can do, meaning the less experienced ISWs will take the public cases.

“The best interest of the vulnerable children involved has to be considered.”

The Family Justice Council, the senior multidisciplinary body concerned with family justice, said a drop in ISWs in public cases would be detrimental to the system.

“ISWs provide courts with an expert and timely opinion, often within more complex cases where an independent and balanced social work assessment is lacking,” a spokesman said. “ISWs will stop doing work for courts if their fee rates are cut so drastically, and children will be more vulnerable to delay and to unfair or ill-informed decisions being made about their futures.”

Margaret Wilson, chairman of the family courts committee at the Magistrates’ Association, said the body was concerned at the impact of the move on care cases.

Civil servants from the MoJ agreed to meet ISW representatives last week to discuss the decision after it was claimed there was a lack of knowledge within the department about the work of ISWs.

Following the meeting a joint statement was released from guardians and social worker body Nagalro, the British Association of Social Workers and two companies that contract out ISWs – WillisPalmer and Independent Social Work Associates – which claimed the government had failed to provide any data to support the fee cut.

The LSC has been unable to say how much money it currently spends on independent social workers in family court cases, nor how much money it expects to save if the fees cap goes through. Opponents to the plan have said the cap could actually result in higher costs overall.

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