By Shefali Shah
We are all familiar with the fact that court proceedings relating to both children’s and adults’ cases are on the increase. This means that you as social care professionals are increasingly at risk of having your evidence examined in court. The two contrasting cases below illustrate the impact the social worker’s evidence can have on the local authority’s case. Although the cases relate to children, the same principles can be applied in adult cases.
Let’s start with an encouragingly positive case, that of A Local Authority v M & Ors  EWFC B66, in which great praise was bestowed on the social worker and their evidence relating to care proceedings for a 14-month-old child.
‘Balanced and fair’
The facts of the case were that the local authority issued care and placement order proceedings in respect of the child when she was just 12 days old. The child’s mother was young and had suffered a difficult childhood herself. Despite the social worker identifying positives, her evidence was that the mother was not able to protect the child, due to her lack of insight. The local authority’s case, supported by the guardian, was to seek a care and placement order, and for the child to be adopted. The parents objected to this care plan.
The social worker had filed a robust set of evidence consisting of six statements and a parenting assessment of the mother, which assisted the judge to undertake an analysis of the realistic options as required by the court further to the Court of Appeal’s leading case of Re B-S.
In this positive case, the court found the social worker’s oral evidence to be balanced and fair, without being defensive. The social worker addressed suggestions from other professionals “with an open-minded vigour”. The judgment records that the court “was impressed by the social work evidence, describing it as “direct”…”focused..thoughtful and reflective” [paragraph 112].
Unusually, Judge Simon Wood set out most of the social worker’s oral evidence in the judgment.
Now compare this with the case of M and N (Children: Local authority gathering, preserving and disclosing evidence) , which was reported by Community Care and whose facts and key issues I have summarised here.
The case concerned how a single injury was caused to N, who was then two months old. The local authority concluded that it was down to a deliberate act by the baby’s parents or neglect, placed N and her sibling with her maternal great grandmother and applied for a care order.
The social worker had not written up her formal case notes until two weeks after meetings with the family and, when their reliability was called into question, was asked to produce her handwritten, contemporaneous notes. The judge said that it was “difficult to overstate how unprofessionally prepared these notes were”. This case clearly demonstrated the need for robust and coherent contemporaneous evidence. The local authority ended up withdrawing its application.
The judge in M and N took the view that training for social workers is crucial. So don’t be left vulnerable to the consequences of poor evidence. Come along to my session at Community Care Live London next week, to understand:
- what constitutes robust evidence;
- the importance of court documents that can stand cross examination;
- the court expectations of the report writer.
Shefali Shah, solicitor and national trainer, Kingsley Knight Training, and author of Key Changes to Family Justice (CoramBAAF, 2016), will be delivering a session at Community Care Live London on Tuesday 25 September at 11.30am on presenting robust evidence in court. To reserve your place at this session, register for Community Care Live and select this legal learning session. There is a fee of £29 plus VAT for each legal learning session you attend and you can pay on the day if places remain. The vast majority of sessions at Community Care Live remain free to attend.