New research by Community Care shows that almost 80% of social workers are thinking of leaving their jobs because of stress. UNISON has growing concerns that one of the contributors to this stress is the pressure surrounding social work in the courts.
Earlier this year, new guidance for the family courts and the court of protection in England and Wales said that judgments will usually be published and expert witnesses named, unless there are compelling reasons not to do so. The aim is to promote transparency and public understanding of the work of the courts.
However, our experience of supporting members named in recent cases has shown the danger of selective media coverage of complex court proceedings. This can cause a backlash against the social workers involved, exposing them to public hostility and media intrusion into their private and family lives.
Such experiences take social workers away from the front line, increase stress and damage health. Once a social worker has been vilified in the media, securing co-operation from families and other agencies may become difficult.
The social workers named are often the least senior and lowest paid staff involved in the decision-making chain. This risks scapegoating them for decisions when the council should instead be taking ownership at a senior level.
UNISON has written raising concerns to the relevant government departments, the Local Government Association (LGA) and WLGA in Wales, and the social services directors’ organisations.
We are issuing guidance for UNISON branches on supporting members in these cases. And we are running a survey for social workers asking about experiences of court work and opinions on the likely consequences of naming.
What we are hearing so far suggests the need for a package of measures including:
· More awareness raising and debate within the profession
· Proper risk assessments ahead of court proceedings and applications for anonymity for social workers where there are specific risks
· Ensuring court report writing and evidence are covered to a high standard in training and CPD
· Workload management measures including protected court preparation time and support
· A comprehensive media and social media strategy in every employer to protect social workers
· Health, safety and welfare support measures
· More liaison and engagement between social work services and the judiciary