By Denise Turner, lecturer in social work, University of Sussex
My first experience of attending court as a newly qualified social worker was decades ago, but I often share it with my students. I’d accompanied a teenage service user and although slightly disorientated by the unfolding process, I do clearly remember the judge asking to hear from the boy’s social worker. I paused for a moment before I realised with great alarm that was me.
For newly qualified practitioners, the court setting can be overwhelming. The rise in digital technology and social media is also adding to the intricacy of court work, leading to a variety of new ethical complexities. Social workers have traditionally sent paper files to court, but now have to think about transferring electronic data. Similarly, there are debates about viewing service users’ Facebook and other social media accounts to garner data and evidence. The courts use this type of evidence – is it something social workers should be doing?
To tackle these issues, the University of Sussex’s social work and law departments recently teamed up to stage a mock trial event, where we ‘charged’ social media with:
“Being a conduit for the dissemination of hostile and offensive material; presenting a danger to the public good and collective wellbeing.”
Social work students acted as witnesses for the ‘defence’ and ‘prosecution’ and were cross-examined by law students on statements that did not necessarily reflect their own personal views. Both sides were supported by barristers from a local chambers, with the head of chambers acting as resident ‘judge’ for the evening. The event was also broadcast live to 130 viewers and an online ‘jury’ poll was created for people to cast their votes.
In keeping with the ‘court simulation’, journalism students acted as court reporters, preparing a piece for the local newspaper and recording the ‘shock verdict’ of the night. After the audience in the room and online viewers cast a preliminary vote of ‘guilty’ at the start of the evening, the final verdict saw the defence win their case with an overwhelming majority.
Many people watching the broadcast and those tweeting to the hashtag #smot [social media on trial] commented on the skill and poise of all students, which helped to endorse the value of the exercise in increasing students’ confidence in the court setting.
Alison, one of the social work students for the defence, said after the event: “I stood in the witness box feeling nervous and apprehensive as I read out my statement but by the time I was cross-examined, not only did I feel relaxed, I also started to enjoy myself.
“When I consider what social workers are trained to do, this is not surprising. Every day my work involves analysing situations, applying rational thinking and making informed judgements – the exact same process was involved in the witness box.”
Becky, also on the defence, added: “I think a lot of the audience members were very surprised by how well-informed, confident and competent the social work students were and it was great to be involved in something that’s challenge people’s perceptions of social workers too!”
We found that the ‘social media on trial’ event not only proved useful in preparing social work students for professional appearances in court, but also showcased their knowledge, increased their experience of working with other disciplines, and educated those watching.