A senior adults’ practitioner has lost his bid to stop Social Work England obtaining a family court judgment that found he abused his ex-partner.
The High Court ruled last week that it was right for the regulator to see the family court judgment because the need for public safety outweighed the social worker’s right to respect for his privacy.
The ruling, by Mrs Justice Knowles, comes on the back of longstanding private law proceedings between the social worker and his former partner, from whom he separated in 2015, concerning their daughter, known as Z.
Domestic abuse findings against social worker
In February last year, Judge Farooq Ahmed made a fact-finding judgment that the man:
- assaulted his former partner in August 2019 and fractured her right hand, causing lasting disability;
- used his temper to frighten and control her;
- was verbally abusive to her, including in front of Z and his other child (now an adult);
- behaved in a way which was emotionally abusive of the children;
- behaved in a way that amounted to gaslighting, control and denigration of his former partner;
- humiliated his former partner about her disability;
- hit the family dog in front of Z who was upset by it; and
- threatened his former partner with the police, solicitors and courts to intimidate her.
Social Work England, which had received a concern about the man’s fitness to practise in March 2021, opened an investigation in May 2022.
Social Work England disclosure request rejected
The following month, it applied for a copy of the judgment, which was opposed by the social worker and, despite initial reservations, supported by Z’s mother.
However, the regulator’s request for disclosure was rejected, without an oral hearing, by Judge Ahmed. Z’s mother then appealed this decision, which was opposed by the practitioner, with Social Work England intervening as an interested party. The case was heard last month by Mrs Justice Knowles.
Though family court proceedings are generally held in private, courts may permit disclosure of information, under rule 12.73 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010.
Factors to weigh in ruling on disclosure
Mrs Justice Knowles said that, in determining whether and how to do so, courts needed to balance a range of factors, set out in the leading case on the issue, Re C (A Minor) (Care Proceedings: Disclosure) , which concerned disclosure from the family courts to the police. These included:
- the welfare and interests of the child or children concerned, with the likelihood of the child being “adversely affected by the order in any serious way” being “a very important factor”;
- the welfare and interests of other children generally;
- the maintenance of confidentiality in children’s cases;
- the importance of encouraging frankness in children’s cases;
- the public interest in the administration of justice, including not setting up barriers between different parts of the judicial system;
- the gravity of the alleged offence and its relevance to the investigation;
- the desirability of co-operation between different agencies concerned with the welfare of children.
This checklist has been applied in subsequent cases to the courts disclosing information to professional regulatory bodies. Also, drawing on subsequent case law, Mrs Justice Knowles said that she took references to the interests of children generally in the Re C checklist to apply to those of vulnerable adults, such as those the social worker worked with.
Confidentiality concerns regarding child
In ruling against disclosure, Judge Ahmed found that it was “very likely that [Z’s] welfare would be adversely affected, and her life changed in important respects” by the judgment’s disclosure.
This was because, if the social worker lost his job, he would no longer be able pay for additional support Z received, including for healthcare, and, given the need to maintain confidentiality, it was in Z’s interests to keep disclosure of the judgment to a minimum.
Judge Ahmed also highlighted the importance of encouraging frankness in children’s cases in ruling against disclosure. He said that, though the social worker had not been wholly truthful, his frankness in certain parts of his evidence had been useful to the court.
Judge’s ‘failure to consider public interest in disclosure’
However, Mrs Justice Knowles found that Judge Ahmed had failed to consider the public interest in disclosing the fact-finding judgment to Social Work England given the importance of agencies concerned with the welfare of children and vulnerable adults co-operating with each other.
She also said that other factors in the Re C checklist pointed in favour of disclosure. This included the welfare and interests of vulnerable adults generally, with the judge highlighting that Social Work England had “a statutory remit to ensure that social workers working with vulnerable adults are suitable people to do that work”.
Mrs Justice Knowles said that the gravity of what the practitioner had done, and its relevance to Social Work England’s investigation, pointed in favour of disclosure, adding that its professional standards required registrants not to “abuse, neglect, discriminate, exploit or harm anyone”.
‘Right to fair hearing’ in fitness to practise process
Also, the public interest in the administration of justice, and the need to break down barriers between different parts of the judiciary, supported disclosure. Though Social Work England was not part of the judiciary, its fitness to practise procedures were “underpinned by statute and regulations and [paid] proper regard to the individual right to a fair hearing”. It was also well used to receiving and managing “highly confidential information and this should command the respect of the family court”.
Furthermore, Mrs Justice Knowles said her fellow judge had failed to justify his position that the public interest in disclosure would be outweighed by serious harm to Z, which she said “seriously undermined the balancing exercise required by Re C and rendered his decision unsafe”.
While disclosure would undoubtedly compromise Z’s confidentiality, the court could apply safeguards to protect her, by redacting identifying information. She also said that the financial impact of the social worker not being able to work was not sufficient to tip the balance towards concluding that Z would – in the words of Re C – be adversely affected by disclosure in a serious way.
‘Impossible’ to consider fitness to practise concerns
Mrs Justice Knowles also said that Judge Ahmed had wrongly ruled against disclosure in finding that Social Work England could conduct its own investigation without disclosure of the fact-finding judgment.
In evidence, counsel for the regulator told the court that it would be “impossible for [Social Work England] to properly consider any concerns raised about the father’s fitness to practise without disclosure of the judgment”.
There would be “continuing uncertainty about what admissions had been made during the fact-finding hearing, the extent to which those admissions were maintained in the fitness to practise proceedings, and indeed whether any findings made had simply not been relayed to the investigators”.
Reflecting this, Mrs Justice Knowles said that, without the judgment, the regulator would be “dependent upon the father being honest about the court’s findings in circumstances where for him to do so might run the risk that he could never work again as a social worker”.
Instead of sending the case back to Judge Ahmed to rule on, Mrs Justice Knowles ordered that the fact-finding judgment be disclosed to Social Work England, on the grounds that further delay would not be in the interests of Z, the practitioner or public protection.
Principles of disclosure
Mrs Justice Knowles also set out principles for the disclosure of information by a court to a regulatory body, such as Social Work England, on the grounds that this was not addressed specifically in the relevant family court practice direction (12G).
This included ensuring that, where a party to family proceedings works with vulnerable people or children and where the court has made findings that may engage or call into question their fitness to practise, the court should consider disclosing the findings to the relevant regulatory body. If disclosure is opposed, the court should consider inviting the regulatory body to intervene and, preferably, the issue should be considered at an attended hearing with the regulator present.
At the time of the hearing, the social worker was looking for a new role having been made redundant from his previous one.
No disclosure to social worker’s employers
Despite ordering the disclosure of the fact-finding judgment to Social Work England, Mrs Justice Knowles said it must not be disclosed to any employer of the social worker.
“Disclosure to a regulatory body will trigger a process which is very likely to have well-established protections for the individual whose fitness to practise is under investigation and where the court can be confident that its disclosure will be carefully safeguarded,” she said. “The same protections and process are, in reality, unlikely to be replicated for each and every employer.”
However, she said that, in practice, any employer would be informed about the fact-finding judgment as a result of the fitness to practise process.