By Matt Bee
There’s something unsettling about receiving a solicitor’s letter. Maybe it’s the curt, clipped prose, the ‘wherefores’ and ‘whosoevers’. Or maybe it’s the fear of having a day in court. But whenever one of those envelopes hits my desk, with the legal firm’s address stamped neatly on the back, I can’t help worrying what I’ll find inside.
And delving further into the matter doesn’t do much to allay my fears. As social workers we must all know the law, but sometimes the law struggles to know itself. For instance, try reading up on deprivations of liberty at the moment and you’ll come across a bewildering array of views.
Meanwhile, as that debate rumbles on, at ground level there are practitioners, like me, who just want to know what all this means in practice. To know for sure, that sometimes means seeking legal advice of our own.
And that throws into light an interesting power dynamic between social work and the legal profession. Just as a letter from a solicitor can ring fear in our hearts, so too can a legal expert on our side of the fence provide firm reassurance.
Here we are, as social workers, operating on the periphery of a strange world we only half understand: a world of courts and barristers, wigs and gowns, weighty documents and impenetrable language; a world that can impose fines and sanctions. So little wonder, then, that we’re quick to welcome any expert who can help navigate the pitfalls that might await us.
Having such a person on ‘our side’ should instil a real sense of confidence. But, actually, it can have quite the opposite effect.
I’ve seen it several times. Once a solicitor has been consulted – particularly if this is pre-empting a legal complaint – the intricate power dynamics within a care team can go to pot. Social workers are hesitant to reach a decision without their manager’s approval.
Managers wait on solicitors. And solicitors are often waiting to hear back from someone else. Soon, the care team jams solid, like one of those mini-roundabouts where three cars arrive at once and everyone is giving way to everyone else. Fearing legal action causes a strange paralysis.
Or sometimes the opposite happens, and practitioners are all too ready to dive in. They read up on law themselves. This, in itself, is nothing to criticise. But then they cite it at each and every opportunity. Lengthy emails are dispatched back and forth, each weighed down heavily with legal text copied and pasted from elsewhere, and fired like salvos from one warring side to the other. It can be a little bewildering to be caught in the middle when two such professionals lock horns.
Negative impact on service user
Legal disputes almost always have negative ramifications for the service user. Care review meetings degenerate into legal workshops. The focus slips from the person at the heart of the debate to the debate itself, and a client’s case – if only briefly – is no longer about them but about who is right, who is wrong, and who can find the best legal argument to make their point.
This isn’t to say that such conflicts are unnecessary. Indeed, they are sometimes inevitable. A strongly worded letter might be the only way to prise a service from the hands of another provider, or to advocate for the service user in some other way.
But it’s no good if, in the process, we turn ourselves into faux solicitors. By the same token, it’s no good if we inadvertently push solicitors into the role of social workers – inviting them to take a lead in all our decision-making.
This blurring of roles is something we need to be mindful of – yet it’s such an easy trap to fall into. And if we return back to that uneasy feeling in the pit of the stomach when an unexpected legal letter lands on our desk, I think that explains it all.
In awe of the law
The truth is, most of us are in awe of the law. And if we’re not, then the organisations we work for are. They certainly don’t want a day in court, so managers, and managers above them, descend on any case becoming a bit litigious, providing direction, giving the case some ‘steer,’ pushing it towards a solicitor for guidance.
But, if we’re not careful, this can pull attention away from the service user. And, if that happens, I think it falls to us, as social workers, to drag the focus back. Yes, we should work alongside solicitors and follow their advice, and be grateful of it. But we should be careful not to be too enamoured with legalities, or we lose sight of who the legalities are actually about.
Matt Bee is a social worker and freelance writer, based in the North East