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Social work exodus fears over court fee cuts

Independent social workers are continuing to voice serious concerns about a UK government plan to slash the fees payable to independent social workers acting as expert witnesses in family courts. Social workers say the Ministry of Justice and Legal Services Commission proposals could lead to an exodus of specialists away from working with children and families in court hearings.

The plan, published late in 2009 after a lengthy consultation period, would from October 2010 cap the hourly rates payable to independent social workers to the same level currently paid to Cafcass. Fees would be limited to £30 an hour (£33 in London) for independent social workers acting as expert witnesses on behalf of local authorities or the families of children in care proceedings.

After reading about the plans in the March issue of Professional Social Work, Margaret Gribbin, an independent social worker and managing director of MG Social Work, said the proposals would ‘barely cover the costs of the work required’. In a letter to PSW, set to be published in April, Ms Gribbin stated: ‘The reason for “independence” in some of the complex cases that we are called to become involved in is sometimes because of either “specialism” in a particular area, or skill and or capacity to produce such work within certain timescales. Fixing rates like this is likely to undermine the “expert work” that is required within court proceedings.’

Kate Ready, another independent social worker who works in family courts, raised her concerns about the proposal in an open letter to the government, abridged in March’s PSW. She said: ‘The LSC’s decision to cut my fees to £30 an hour has left me literally devalued and consequently dispirited. As a result I may decide to no longer work in the courts.’

BASW has raised its concerns with government officials to the plans, contained in a document titled Family Legal Aid Funding From 2010. In partnership with NAGALRO and other BASW is continuing to lobby against the reforms, which professional officer David Barnes says “undermine recognition of the expert role of social work evidence in family court hearings”.

Mr Barnes told PSW: “This move will lead to a severe reduction in the availability of social work expertise in family proceedings, expertise that is vital for courts to make informed judgements about the best interests and welfare of some of the most vulnerable children in our society.

“What must be recognised is that the rates Cafcass pays to its staff don’t actually reflect the full cost involved for independent social workers, who also have to pay cover their overheads. Indeed, while the skills and level of expertise for both roles do overlap, Cafcass Guardians are effectively officers of the court appointed to determine and represent the best interests of the child in care proceedings, while expert witnesses will be appointed by application by one or more of the parties to do specific pieces of work.

“For example, it is not unusual for the court to decide that the social work assessment by the local authority is potentially flawed by a history of conflict between the parents and the LA. They will then seek an independent assessment.”