A rise in care applications and private law cases means more social workers are being asked to provide courts with welfare reports.Matthew Burman gives some guidance on what is expected
Historically it has always been one of the core tasks of courts advisory body Cafcass or a children’s guardian to write welfare reports for private family law cases concerning contact and residence issues for children. But under the provisions of the Children Act 1989 any social worker may, in fact, be called upon to do so.
And, with the recent rise in applications to take children in to care coinciding with an increase in private law work, Cafcass is coming under continuous strain. This means more and more local authority social workers are being called upon to now provide welfare reports in private cases.
This will almost certainly be the case if a local authority has been involved with a family before and it is deemed more practical for one of their social workers to write the report. If a court requests such a report then the social worker is under a duty to provide it.
However, some local authority social workers are unaware of what is expected when preparing a welfare report. As of April new rules also came in governing the writing of these reports which social workers should also be aware of.
There have been a number of cases concerning what is expected of social workers when ordered to prepare a welfare report. The writer of the report should get to know the child in his/her own home and observe their relationship with any relevant adults. Interviews with the child and parents in an office environment will tend to be insufficient. See for example, Re W (A minor) (Custody)  and Re P (A minor) (Inadequate welfare report) .
There have also been cases to support the view that if, having met the child, the social worker feels they cannot adequately represent their wishes and feelings through their report, they should inform the court at the earliest opportunity so that consideration should be given to the child being separately represented. See L v L (Minors) (Separate Representation) .
In April, the new Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR) came into effect. As far as care cases are concerned, the Public Law Outline has now been incorporated into the FPR as one of 36 practice directions.
Part 16 of the FPR sets out the factors social workers must consider when writing welfare reports. They must bear in mind that any delay is likely to prejudice the child’s welfare and consider the Welfare Checklist, outlined in the Children Act 1989. In addition they must:
● Make all necessary investigations including contacting and interviewing the parties and obtaining whatever professional assistance they or the court has deemed necessary;
● Notify the child of the contents of the report, bearing in mind their age and level of understanding, and explain the contents of the report to them in an age-appropriate manner;
● Attend hearings as directed by the court;
● Advise the court of the child’s wishes and feelings;
● Advise the court if they feel joining someone as a party to proceedings would safeguard the child’s welfare;
● Consider whether the child should be made a party to proceedings (and notify the court if so);
● File the report and serve a copy of it on the parties. It is good practice for the report to be disclosed to each party giving them enough time to discuss it with their legal advisers.
Once the report has been written, that document is confidential. Social workers can be questioned by the parties about their report. They can also be cross-examined in court, and judges have power under the FPR to limit the issues on which social workers can be questioned.
➔ Guidance on writing welfare reports is also provided in the Children Act Advisory Committee Handbook of Best Practice in Children Act Cases 1997, section 4
Matthew Burman is a pupil barrister based at Coram Chambers, LondonWhat do you think? Join the debate on CareSpace
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This article is published in the 27 October 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “How to prepare a welfare report”