By Shefali Shah, director, solicitor and national trainer, Kingsley Knight Training
Shefali is delivering a free practical session on how social workers can improve their confidence in court at tomorrow’s Community Care Live Birmingham event.
Many social workers feel uncomfortable about going to court. For some the idea is downright frightening, something they would avoid if they possibly could. The reality is that, however challenging, it is part of the social worker’s job and not attending court can have serious consequences.
I was involved in one case where a social worker was directed to attend court in a private law children’s matter. The social worker informed the court that she would not be attending as she was on duty. She felt anxious about it and preferred to avoid court; she didn’t seek advice but thought this course of action would enable her not to attend.
However this did not go down well with the judge who sent a further order for her attendance and attached a penal notice to the order. This meant that if the social worker refused to comply then she could be held in contempt of court, imprisoned or fined.
The social worker did attend court and gave evidence over two days. However, the problems continued because in the judge’s view, the social worker’s evidence failed to assist the case. In fact, it further complicated it.
This resulted in the judge ordering the local authority to give a reason why it should not pay the applicant’s legal costs of £17,000. This was a harsh lesson for both the practitioner and her council in ensuring social workers are clear about what is expected of them.
As this case shows, an understanding of court rules and your duties as a witness is really important.
The anxiety about attending court and giving evidence that caused problems in this case could have been avoided by addressing what the worries were.
Common worries include not knowing how the legal system operates, the court rules, legal language or the purpose of cross-examination. Others may be concerned about what they will be asked and being uncertain about what to say and when to say it.
Social workers may feel nervous if they are unaware of what their duties are or have fears about who else will be at court on that day. Some feel anxious about how to address the judge and court etiquette, formalities or protocol. Others are worried about how they will come across under cross-examination. It can even be something as seemingly trivial as not knowing what to wear.
As with many situations, the main reason for anxiety is the not-knowing.
We get worried about entering unfamiliar environments with rules we don’t necessarily know and that can be daunting.
In court, there is a risk that these feelings of uncertainty can interfere with how a social worker presents themselves. There is sometimes the idea that giving evidence is a performance and the courtroom is like a theatre. I would argue this isn’t actually that useful and can result in social workers adopting an unhelpful presentation style.
You may be trying to present as confident and credible, but could be perceived as defensive, aggressive or even confrontational.
You can gain and demonstrate genuine confidence in this arena where social workers play a vital role by equipping yourself with knowledge and skills. By understanding what is expected of you and how the process works, it will seem less intimidating.
Social workers are experts. The Community Care Live mock court session will arm you with the essential skills you need to become an impressive witness and demonstrate your expertise to the courts.
Shefali Shah is author of ‘Key Changes to Family Justice’, published in 2015 by CoramBAAF