Social workers found in contempt of court after denying a mother access to her children ‘were following procedure’

Union officials said the ruling by a Scottish court conflicts with social workers' legal duty to act in the best interests of the child

By Rachel Schraer

Two Edinburgh social workers have been found in contempt of court for restricting a mother’s access to her children, against conditions set by the court in April 2012.

The social workers, known as CM and GL, defied sheriff Katherine Mackie’s original ruling that the children should have contact with their mother a minimum of twice a week.

They complied at first, but, according to the Edinburgh branch of Unison, became “increasingly concerned” about the emotional effect on the children.

“Due to concerns about placement breakdown, a contact was suspended pending a children’s hearing. Hearings were then continued without addressing the contact and contact did not take place for several weeks,” said branch chair John Stevenson.

Unison emphasised that all decisions were taken in accordance with Edinburgh council’s normal processes and procedures.

However, Mackie held this to be an intentional breaching of her access order and made the social workers subject to contempt proceedings, which she presided over.

The judgement handed down this week found the social workers guilty of contempt, but did not impose any further penalty.

They were ruled to have obstructed the administration of justice through their actions, which “affronted the authority of the court and frustrated the rights of [the mother]”.

Condemning the judgement, Unison’s Scottish organiser Dave Watson said: “Our social work members have an overriding duty to ensure that a child’s welfare is paramount in all that they do.

“However, it seems the paramountcy of the welfare of the children is not considered relevant during contempt proceedings. This is quite clearly a conflict of laws.”

Section 17 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 outlines a local authority’s duty to a looked after child to “safeguard and promote his welfare, which shall, in the exercise of their duty to him be their paramount concern”.

Unison also said the finding against the two individual social workers, rather than the organisations they work for, was troubling and could have wide-ranging implications for frontline staff.

“Social work staff deal with complex and challenging cases on a daily basis and this decision puts them in a very difficult and vulnerable position,” said Watson.

The court acknowledged that the social workers had acted without malice and in what they deemed to be the children’s best interests.

However, Mackie found the behaviour of CM and GL to be “analogous to that of a parent with care who wilfully refused to make a child available for contact” and therefore unacceptable.

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