The numbers of independent social workers (ISWs) who provide expert advice in complex care proceedings are dwindling as the fallout from pay caps imposed earlier in the decade continues to be felt, a professional body has said.
Nagalro, which represents ISWs as well as children’s guardians and family court advisors, issued the warning this week after the Legal Aid Agency published new guidance on the amount expert witnesses can be paid.
The rates social workers can claim remain static at levels set in 2010 – £33 per hour within London and £30 outside the capital – which are lower than those paid to other experts. The fees, which are less than the hourly rate many agency social workers receive, can usually only be charged for up to 30 hours’ work.
Research by Community Care carried out in 2013 found that the caps had led 80% of ISWs to turn to alternative sources of income or to consider leaving the profession entirely.
In a speech last autumn, the new family courts president Sir Andrew McFarlane said cases were being delayed because of a shortage of expert witnesses – including social workers – and suggested the system may need revision.
“I have been struck by accounts from courts all over the country as to the greater difficulty that now exists in finding experts who are prepared to take on instruction in a family case,” McFarlane said.
Sukhchandan Kaur, the chair of Nagalro, said the organisation had around 700 members, most of whom had traditionally done court advisory work.
“Quite a large number have given up legal aid work, because they are unable to do the depth and scope of assessments needed [within the available time],” Kaur said. She said that in complex cases studying evidence, interviewing families and professionals and preparing a report fit for court in 30 hours was often an “impossible” task.
‘Your reputation is on the line every time’
“I stopped doing court work because it didn’t reflect the skill and experience I brought,” said Alison Paddle, an independent social worker and former children’s guardian.
“These are very complex cases and pretty demanding – your reputation is on the line every time,” added Paddle, an ex-chair of Nagalro. “You are trying to produce the best outcome for a child and in lots of these situations you cannot do them justice. It’s not just the rates of pay but the number of hours – even though supposedly [30 hours was] just an indicator, it’s very hard to get anything above that and you’d end up doing a superficial report.”
Paddle told Community Care the pay and conditions on offer to ISWs had led to a courts suffering a “huge loss of expertise”, which was needed all the more in the context of rising numbers of special guardianship and supervision orders.
“You are [often] piecing together an overview of what a psychologist or psychiatrist has said about a parent, looking at the child’s needs and the capacity of carers, saying, ‘This is the kind of challenge any set of carers will face, and these carers match up in these respects but will need this support package,’ Paddle said.
“If you haven’t got someone skilled to knit together complex information and give an authoritative recommendation for the future, that child may be going into a placement where carers don’t understand what their needs are and risks may not have been assessed adequately.”
Paddle said she, like some other experienced ISWs, had increasingly shifted to therapeutic work with families, where she was sometimes picking up the pieces in the wake of poor decisions. “The rates of pay [for court work] reflect how little social work expertise is recognised – and you can end up with far more difficulties for children, and expense, later on,” she said.
“Those who do continue are having to put in a lot of their own time for sake of child – that’s what I constantly hear, ‘The child needs our service,'” she added. “But not everyone is able to and those who do, [it’s uncertain] how long they will be able to continue.”
Kaur said she usually had “repeated requests” to take on assessments she could no longer accommodate, and that she mainly only took on cases where her particular skills meant families would not get help if she refused.
She added that the shortage of ISWs coincided with research showing significant numbers of orders breaking down, raising questions over the quality of assessments being made.
‘Same people over and over’
Sarah Phillimore, a leading family courts barrister, told Community Care that it was “getting harder and harder” to find people who can report on time and on budget.
“It seems to be just the same small pool of people over and over again,” Phillimore said.
Nagalro is looking at surveying its members in the near future in order to get a more detailed view of the situation, Kaur said.
But a spokesperson for Cafcass suggested the situation had not deteriorated markedly of late.
“To date, Cafcass has not experienced any gaps in the provision of independent social workers where needed in proceedings,” the spokesperson said.