Independent social workers are so enraged by the capping of their expert witness fees that some are refusing to deal with Cafcass and others may leave their sector altogether. Molly Garboden reports
Independent social worker (ISW) and consultant Bridget Betts is fed up. “You clear up other people’s messes and your experience and skills aren’t even appreciated,” she says. “I’ve been in this profession a long time and I’ve started to think, at this stage, I want to get out.”
In an attempt to reduce the legal aid budget, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Legal Services Commission (LSC) decided the fees of ISWs who provide reports and evidence should be capped at about £30 an hour from October 2010. Other expert witnesses, such as doctors and psychologists, are still paid £70-100.
However, the fees cap was agreed based on a narrow section of court work done by ISWs, says Alison Paddle, former chair of guardians and ISW body Nagalro.
She says the only government consultation in which ISW fees were addressed looked at Rule 9.5 cases only. These are private law cases in which it is initially assumed that parents are capable of making decisions in the best interests of the child, but their judgement is at some stage compromised. The child is then consulted, along with a guardian and often an ISW.
A consultation about fees for other expert witnesses is continuing, but ISWs have been excluded from it. “Many people in the sector thought the decision hadn’t been made yet,” says Paddle. “But the LSC, MoJ and [the then] Department for Children, Schools and Families said the decision regarding social workers had been settled in the first consultation and there would be no further discussion.
“We feel that’s unfair and it demeans social workers because people are paying a lot more attention to the other professionals, such as doctors.”
In fact, Rule 9.5 cases make up a tiny proportion of ISW work. Betts, who is based in Nottingham, has never taken part in one. Her main focus has been on difficult cases in which family courts advisory body Cafcass has failed to come to a conclusion and needs further analysis.
She has been approached about sibling relationship assessments, assessing a child’s needs within a particular placement and, more recently, human rights-based assessments for parents facing deportation.
“The cap was based on a very narrow role and I don’t think enough consideration was given to our range of skills. I think, with 30 years’ experience in social work, 11 of those being independent, I bring a particular skills set in terms of assessment and analysis to court cases. That should be on a par with other independent expert witnesses.”
Betts says the impact of the fees cut has made her wonder how her contributions are valued beside other experts. “I struggle with the fees because it makes me wonder what my opinion is worth – how seriously are my views going to be taken if they’re going to pay me so much less than other experts?”
Some ISWs have simply given up working for Cafcass as expert witnesses, saying it is no longer economically viable. The drop in ISWs willing to work on public law cases will come at a cost, according to Stephen Cameron, ISW and trainer based in Bristol.
“My fear is that it will mean the waiting list will get longer and that will be to the detriment of children,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to function at £30 an hour, so I’ve stopped working for Cafcass.”
ISWs require their fees to be high because of the irregular nature of the work. “As an independent, you can only charge for the hours that you work,” he says. “With court work, you may write a report and do other work here and there, but it’s not seven hours a day, so you need the fees to be high enough to make it worth your while. And there’s so much you need to do that isn’t payable – research, family calls, administrative tasks, keeping abreast of your professional accounts, updating your continuing professional development, not to mention the use of your own experience.
“I like the freedom of being independent, but many of my colleagues who were ISWs have taken salaried posts. It’s such a shame they’ve had to make that choice, because ISWs are extremely valuable to the sector.”
HOW THE FEE CAP IS VIEWED
Charles Hale, specialist family barrister at the Family Law Bar Association: “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 Family Justice Council, the multidisciplinary body representing the family courts, including judges and magistrates: “ISWs provide courts with an expert and timely opinion, often within more complex cases where an independent and balanced social work assessment is lacking. If ISWs stop doing work for courts, children will be more vulnerable to delay and to unfair or ill-informed decisions being made about their futures.”
For INFORM subscribers
This article is published in the 27 may 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “We want out”