Ask the expert: ‘How can I best prepare to be a professional witness?’

Social work careers expert Dame Lorna Boreland-Kelly offers advice to social workers who are due to give evidence in court

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We asked you to share your social work career questions with our resident expert, Dame Lorna Boreland-Kelly. In our ask the expert column, Dame Lorna answers queries from practitioners looking to advance their social work careers. Check out our previous ask the expert columns for advice on other topics.

If you would like some careers advice from Dame Lorna, send your questions to

Dear Dame Lorna,

I am a social worker who will be going to court for the first time to obtain a court order in relation to a child. How can I best prepare to be a professional witness?

Best wishes,


Dear Shirley*

Thanks for your letter. In responding, I have drawn on my many years of experience as a social worker/senior manager and a presiding magistrate in the criminal court.

As a social worker called to attend court for the first time, you may find this very daunting.  However, you should not be doing this on your own.  You should have had the opportunity to discuss the “case” in supervision with your manager or a senior social worker.

You will also normally be required to prepare a report/statement for the hearing which must have been checked by the legal department of your employer.

It is the lawyers who will be responsible for filing all required documents with the court, prior to the application for a court order. Your application may be, for example, as a result of you being the allocated social worker, or being on duty in the case of an application for an “emergency protection order”

Prior to attending the hearing, you should ask the lawyer for your employer to go over the statement with you. They should also talk you through the likely questions that you will be asked by the lawyers representing the other parties, especially the parent/carers and the child/children. Preparation is key when you appear as a professional in court.

On the day that you attend the court, arrange to be early and to meet the lawyer (normally a barrister) representing your employer to discuss and read over your statement/report.

Remember that this is not a social event: do not be drawn into casual conversation by the lawyers for the other parties, as they may remember any comments you may have made and refer to this in cross examination of you.

You can share thoughts with other social workers about how best to prepare for court in the Social Work Community, our new online network for the profession.

It provides a gated, moderated space where you can exchange ideas and experiences with fellow students and social workers, without the risks of posting on social media.

Sign up to the Social Work Community now.

The lawyer representing your employer should be present during any pre-court discussion that the lawyers may wish to hold in relation to the application that is being made by you for an order. If you are approached for a discussion before the arrival of your lawyer, politely decline and explain that you will need to wait and discuss with your employers’ lawyer when they arrive.

As a witness who is a professional, you will normally be asked to establish your credentials when you take your place in the witness stand, once you have taken the oath or affirmed. The lawyer representing your employer will normally lead you in these questions to establish your credentials in making the application.

It is important that you maintain eye contact with the magistrate/judge and the lawyers, as this can build trust and confidence. Try to address your answers to the judge or magistrates (rather than the lawyers).

Ensure that you know the correct manner in which to address them. If you are speaking to a magistrate, you should address them as “Your Worship, or Sir/Madam”. If speaking to a high court judge, you should use “My Lord” or “My Lady”. District judges, are addressed as “Judge”.

It is important that you learn the etiquette of entering the court and the appropriate dress for the court. I am reminded of the number of occasions when I have had phones go off in my court room during a hearing, and of professionals having conversations in sight of the bench.

In summary, here are some useful tips for you:

  • Do not dress casually: it is a hearing, not a case conference.
  • Be on time, most certainly earlier than the given time of the hearing, and arrange a meeting point with your employer’s lawyer.
  • Having made a statement, read it and stick to the facts – do not embellish them.
  • If you can, attend court before the date of your application to observe how the court works before your first appearance. The legal team for your employer should be able to arrange this. Remember that as the family courts are closed to the public, unlike the criminal court, which is open to the public, you will need the permission of the clerk to the to attend and observe a hearing. This is an induction activity that I have always encouraged for newly qualified social workers and those from overseas.
  • Remain hydrated with water.
  • Have a pen and notepaper available to take on to the witness stand with you.
  • Be confident in your professional knowledge.
  • Don’t get angry: the lawyers for the other parties are doing a job in their examination of your evidence.
  • There will be different rules and principles that apply in other jurisdictions, such as the administrative court, Court of Protection and tribunals. You need to ensure that you know how they differ.
  • Before the case, talk to more experienced colleagues and your line manager about their first time in court.
  • Plan for your safe travel away from the court after the hearing. This is because the parent/carer could be upset and angry at you having successfully obtained the order that you have applied for.
  • You are a professional, so ensure you act as a professional at all times. Be proud of being a social worker – I am!


*A pseudonym has been used.

Need help?

Send your career questions to our resident expert, Dame Lorna Boreland-Kelly, to get more clarity and guidance on your career progression plans.

Dame Lorna has over 30 years’ experience of leading and developing social care services. She has an unparalleled level of insight into frontline social work and is well-versed in the issues that affect practitioners today.

You can take a look at previous questions and answers on our ask the expert page.

Questions can be sent to

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One Response to Ask the expert: ‘How can I best prepare to be a professional witness?’

  1. Linda January 23, 2024 at 6:19 pm #

    If it is a first time for a social worker to appear in court they should be supported by a more senior member of staff .
    As a retired director I felt for managers to be with a social worker had an enormous benefit so they don’t feel alone .