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Independent social workers win judicial backing

The important role of independent social workers in family court proceedings won support from a high court judge at a Family Justice Review Public Summit

Mr Justice Ryder, charged by the Family Division with overseeing the modernisation of the family justice system, told the event that there is a place for independent social workers in providing expert assessments as part of a care proceedings application.

The judge was contributing to a Public Law Summit about the Family Justice Review, published in November 2011 and chaired by David Norgrove, a report that called for a reduction in the use of independent social workers. Mr Norgrove claimed independent experts can duplicate the work of local authority practitioners.

BASW chief executive Hilton Dawson also addressed the event, emphasising the Association’s view that independent practitioners offer valuable and specific expertise that often helps, rather than hinders, a care proceedings application. “Norgrove recommended that independent social workers be used only in exceptional circumstances yet with little evidence of the delay duplication and expense that some of the most experienced practitioners in the country are alleged to bring,” he said.

Mr Dawson also criticised the decision of the Ministry of Justice in May 2011 to cap the fees of independent social workers offering expert testimony in court at rates well below those for comparable professions.

He also told the event that Oxford University research to be published on 19 April would demonstrate the effectiveness of independent social work contributions.

He went on to highlight the impact of increasing resource constraints, with 40% of cases coming before family courts without core assessments having been undertaken, as well as Cafcass’ ‘proportionate’ model which sanctions a lower level of scrutiny by children’s guardians. “Key services for children are losing some of the best, most experienced practitioners in the country as professionals voting with their feet compound the problems of local authorities seeking to cut costs by replacing the most effective staff.”

Speaking immediately after the event BASW professional officer Sue Kent welcomed the focus on the role of independent workers who she said “can add value to complex court cases where issues arise that need a quick and accurate focus to move the case forward”.

She continued: “The skills and experience of a selected independent social worker within public law can be tremendously helpful in the assessment and analysis of specific areas of the case. These can include, for example, examining sibling relationships, looking at specific needs of the child for a present or future placement and issues relating to human rights for example parents facing deportation.

“The work of the independent social worker is additional to the professional work completed by the social worker in the overall assessment and analysis of the case and, as Justice Ryder concluded, an integral service for children involved in family court processes.”