A judge’s view on how family courts treat social workers

A judge and social worker respond to recent concerns about how professionals are treated in court

Photo: alexkich/fotolia

By HH Judge Lynn Roberts and Helen Bonnick

We were saddened by a recent piece in Community Care, which talked particularly about the status and treatment of social workers in the family courts.

The piece’s author, Sophie Ayers, made a number of points – supported by comments underneath – which reflected a sense that individual social workers are blamed for the system’s failings.

The difficulty of completing assessments in time; the experience of being humiliated by other professionals and not supported; and the level of intimidation faced even before entering the courtroom were all addressed.

It was clear also from her writing that, despite the challenges, she is an experienced professional who still holds tight to the hope that her intervention can transform the lives of those with whom she works, and this cry from the heart is a wish that things could be better rather than the voice of despair.

Increased pressure

Most judges and magistrates who are hearing public law cases recognise that the changes of the past few years have increased the pressure on social workers, and most of us are conscious of the need to make the courtroom a place where all concerned are treated with respect and are listened to fairly.

While we cannot speak for the structural and systemic issues facing social work at this time; we know that it is a time of great upheaval as timescales are changed, while budget cuts and reorganisation affect morale and the ability to do what is required.

Sometimes this means that not everything has gone smoothly, that tasks remain uncompleted or reports have been written late at night. We ask social workers to perform one of the most important jobs there is, in circumstances that often seem stacked against them.

They are required to be sensitive yet challenging, supportive while investigative. Undermined at every turn, and yet still they carry on because of their professionalism and determination to give children the very best chances in life.


At the same time we do expect directions about when reports are to be filed to be adhered to, because of the legal requirement to complete cases within 26 weeks. It is the responsibility of the social worker’s manager to enable that to happen by, for example, not overloading the practitioner.

Respect must be at the heart of all we do in court. The experience is stressful for all parties and we need to understand the impact this has on the way people hear and respond to what is said. So judges start from a position of assuming everyone has done their job and done it to the best of their ability and fairly.

This means that court reports must include the positive comments about a parent’s abilities, as well as concerns and criticisms. As one of the commenters on Ayers’ piece said, this shows compassion and care.

It is now accepted practice for many, but still not all. All players are asked to treat each other courteously in court and people should be thanked for their contribution. When reports are clear and concise the job of everyone is made so much easier, and so judges should always make a point of commending this.

Court in this country is adversarial, albeit with inquisitorial functions. It is right that people should be held to account for the assessments they share and comments they make, and we would all understand the importance of a fair voice for parents. But it is rarely necessary that this should stretch to personal derogatory remarks from any party.


The tension is often extraordinarily high in court as life-changing decisions are made, but it is the duty of the court and the professionals to work to the highest standards, so that those decisions are the right ones for the children whose futures we are deciding.

It is important for the social worker to listen to and trust the legal advice they receive, as it is the lawyer’s role to put the social worker’s evidence into a legal context and give objective legal advice; sometimes the outcome the social worker seeks is not achievable or a compromise is appropriate.

The opportunity for, and standard of, training for court appearances has grown tremendously over recent years, whether in the preparation of reports, or the giving of evidence.

This must be a fundamental expectation for all social workers within the court field, as must the offer and availability of good management and supervision.

Is it important that managers are present in court? We often see this and many people benefit from knowing they are not alone. But more important is the preparation beforehand, whether with managers or counsel. This is the route to confidence – confidence that all that is necessary has been done, and confidence in presentation and response.

One aspect of the recent reforms is the recognition that the child’s social worker is an expert in their own right and that usually no other expert is necessary.

We hope Sophie Ayers and her colleagues will accept that this reflects the respect in which the child’s social worker is held.

Judge Lynn Roberts is the Designated Family Judge for Essex and Suffolk. Previously she was a District Judge at the PRFD after many years as a solicitor, mainly acting for children.

Helen Bonnick works as a social work Practice Educator in East London and blogs about children’s violence to parents.

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12 Responses to A judge’s view on how family courts treat social workers

  1. Pancho August 12, 2016 at 10:34 am #

    Good to see the Beaks recognising the responsibility of managers to support social workers, which neither of the regulatory bodies in England or Wales seem capable of.

  2. David Steare August 12, 2016 at 1:28 pm #

    This attempt to reassure social workers by representatives of the legal profession appears reasonable enough. However, I suspect that social workers as well as families would prefer a more dialogical process rather than the adversarial approach currently pervading children’s safeguarding.

    It is 21 years since the publication of ‘Positive Child Protection: A View From Abroad’ which showed other countries engaging in more dialogue and less adversarialism.

    I can’t imagine the situation improving either for social workers or for families.

  3. Stan. Miller August 13, 2016 at 10:21 am #

    Excellent, it’s great to read that judges and magistrates recognise the pressure social workers are under and the need for mutual respect by all parties within the Court arena. I agree wholeheartedly with virtually th comments HH Judge Roberts makes.

    My only comment would be that in recognising the pressure social workers and indeed their managers face in a world of competing demands, timescales for assessments, reports not just for the Courts but CP conferences, CSE panels, accommodation panels to name but a few. The countless and relentless hours spent by social workers and thei managers hanging around in Court, waiting for their case to be heard is one of the greatest restrictions on their time..

    So often were advised to be in Court at 9:30am for a 10am hearing that stretches into lunchtime, with a request to comeback after lunch. To return after lunch and actually walk into the Court at 3-4pm.

    This delay is such a massive drain the the time of the social worker and if in attendance, their manager. If we accept that this is avoidable, please can we have timescale for attendance at Court that are realistic and manageable. I accept the need to meet and negotiate with advocates and legal advisors but with the new processes the timeliness of these should negate the need to write off an entire day in the social workers diary because you have a Court attendance scheduled.

    Of course Managers should attend Court with their social workers and where the complexity of a case demands it, I’m sure most Managers would want to be in attendance, not just to support their social worker but to make decisions on behalf of the local authority. However until the Court recognise the impact on the managers workload of spending the entire day in Court, I suspect fewer and fewer managers will be able to prioritise Court attendance against the mountains of administrative tasks required of them.

    Thank you HH for recognising the work of the social work expert. If we can just have a system where the actual hearing is given a listing time that minimises delays, I’m sure our staff will be less stressed and exhausted having spent the day in Court and then working late into the night to prepare that Conference report or meeting minutes.

  4. Del Toro August 13, 2016 at 7:27 pm #

    The word “unsupported” is the most telling and regrettable. Also judges can be unrealistic. I heard of a social worker that was instructed to bring a specialist medical report to the court for 3 siblings in three days to get the ICO he sought.

  5. Tom J August 15, 2016 at 10:39 am #

    ‘Court in this country is adversarial’

    For me the adversarial nature of courts is bad news for all parties. It allows tangents that move away from the needs of the child and benefits no one.

    – When a social worker accidently writes once in their report that the child is aged 5 (and not the correct age 6) a simple apology should be accepted. Instead we have the social worker grilled over this and a character assassination ensues. This then detracts from why we are there. Moreover the social worker then enters into the ‘game’ forgetting that what matters is the child.

    I also find it sad that a parent can often think that they are ‘winning’ when they see that the judge is allowing the social worker to be heavily attacked over relatively small issues. I can recall a parent who represented themselves and challenged the social worker on every issue from the car she drove to her inability to effectively play computer games- as the judge allowed this the father assumed that he was onto something.

    Rather randomly; A helpful book I found in relation to coping in an adversarial court and understanding the various dynamics is Outrage by Vincent Bugliosi into the criminal trial of OJ Simpson.

    • Martin Porter August 18, 2016 at 2:55 pm #

      The ability to play a dead bat to attacks in court is a very useful skill to have, and one you can only really get from practise.

      I remember getting a grilling from a badly briefed barrister asking how dare I accuse his client of being a bad parent, when I’d actually said he was a good parent, just extremely violent to his partner. When I agreed with all his points and then returned to my original argument it completely disarmed him.

  6. Lee Pardy-Mclaughlin August 15, 2016 at 9:47 pm #

    A helpful and supportive piece thank you. Some thoughts…

    1. We need to ensure that social workers are supported, trained and supported in legal literacy, this means both the skills and knowledge underpinned by confident and experienced managers to support and supervise with reflective analytical case discussion.

    2. Case loads do continue to be a real challenge across the country and we need to find way to manage the work load and case load.

    3. The plethora of case law is presenting some real challenges, practitioners strive to stay in touch with the case law picture, using this to ensure that children’s care planning and d and are decisions are in their best interest’s. Please can we find a way of getting the case law out in a clear and concise manner. This is creating some real challenges in the system.

    4. A very small but potentially great win is that when social workers are waiting in court could we consider access to wifi and space for social workers to work, this will support a better use of time.

    • Gill August 19, 2016 at 10:04 am #

      Be careful – number four moves to making more work when we are already at work.

      Time at court is work and while I known we are busy we should not allow work ‘creep’ to flow over to over work periods. I think we as social workers have allowed this to happen and hence the expectation now to do more.

      Time waiting might be better off spent talking to the child or family to ensure we can work together outside the court once it is done. Again not easy but worthwhile sometimes. Or just take the time to gather yourself prior to court.

  7. A Social Worker August 18, 2016 at 2:42 pm #

    The best solution is do to away with the court process in its current form and adopt the Scottish model of Children’s Hearings.

    A fortune would be saved on solicitors, barristers and all the other court costs. It will leave more money for services and crucially have a less adversarial system to interfere with everyone working better together.

    I’ve worked in both systems and at a loss about why we are holding onto this antique and costly method where dialogue and discourse is discouraged in favour of argument and antagonism.

    • Tom J August 18, 2016 at 4:21 pm #


    • SW August 20, 2016 at 2:16 pm #

      Couldn’t agree more I too have worked in both systems however we must ensure Panel members are better trained in focussing on the issues evidenced and presented and not allow their own predujices and opinions of social workers to creep in as has also been unfortunately apparent at times

  8. Sadia Ashiq August 30, 2016 at 9:36 am #

    Couldn`t agree more. Its about time we look at the adversarial justice system for care proceedings and acknowledge that social workers are an equal “party to proceedings”. Therefore, should be given the same respect as any other party to proceedings namely: opposing legal team, Cafcass, Cafcass legal team and parents.