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Show social workers the respect they deserve - Lord Justice Munby

The highest family court judge in England and Wales told social workers he wants to ensure their skill and expertise is respected in family court proceedings.

The Right Honourable Sir James Munby – President of the Family Division of the High Court – said he was aware social workers “for a variety of reasons” felt “deskilled, disempowered and deprofessionalised”.

Speaking to delegates at the British Association of Social Workers’ annual conference in London, he admitted the court system had in the past contributed to this through point scoring by “clever young barristers”.

But he said: “You are experts within the area of your professional training, which is social work.

“We have got to change the culture in the family courts. I put up my hand and say frankly the family courts are not alone to blame for this deskilling and deprofessionalisation and disempowerment, but we played an inglorious part in facilitating that and not putting a stop to it.

“You will too often in the past have been exposed to clever young barristers taking easy points off you, trying to throw you off balance, trying to make you feel uncomfortable in court.

“That has been allowed to go too far. I have been insistent in the views I have expressed to everyone in the system, that has to stop. Your voice is very important.

“In the context of what we are trying to do in the family courts, you are at least as important as everybody else.”

He defended controversial reforms reducing the use of independent social workers in family court proceedings as a sign of trust in the expertise of local authority social workers.

Justice Munby also signalled strong support for the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) currently being piloted to help parents with substance abuse in family cases.

Unlike conventional care proceedings, parents in FDAC see the same judge without lawyers every fortnight.

Justice Munby said: “FDAC works. FDAC is vital in my view. This is the message for management: FDAC actually saves money in the long term because it is solving, as far as FDAC can, the problem of the mother going on having children year after year in the hope that she can keep one.

“We are probably also saving the cost of future care proceedings in breaking the cycle.”

He said a key component of the success of FDAC was the personal rapport developed between judge and parents.

“Too often they [judges] just sit there passive and the debate is between the judge and lawyers.

“We need to recognise that this [FDAC] enables the parents to feel they are being listened to. FDAC will be one of a number of things in the family court which will move things in the direction of a more inquisitorial system.”

Justice Munby stressed that despite recent pronouncements from central Government, adoption legally remained a “last resort”.

He said: “In the final analysis if there is a clash between what the Supreme Court says and what the guidance says, then under our constitutional system the Supreme Court wins."

He also claimed it was the responsibility of employers to ensure continual professional development of staff so they knew the legal setting in which they operated.

“Individual social workers cannot be expected to keep abreast even of the issues of most important legal relevance. That has got to be in my book the responsibility of management.

“It is vital that someone within local authorities should be selecting out of the torrent of cases that come out from the courts every week those few cases that directly impact on what you are doing, gutting from lengthy judgements the key messages and turning those into what you need to know as front line practitioners."

Justice Munby underlined the “incredibly difficult work” of all those involved in making family court decisions.

“The thing that haunts me is that here we are in 2014 and the age expectation of a child born now is probably in the high 80s. They will very probably be alive into the next century.

“If we are dealing with a teenage mother whose child is about to be taken into care or placed for adoption, she will have to live with the consequences for 60 or 70 years, the child even longer.”

Justice Munby added that belief in what works in areas like adoption was something that changed with time.

“I am not saying the current system is anything other than the best system, but it is just the best system based on our current views and expertise. The one thing we can all be confident about in the family justice system is that in 50 years time people will say ‘what on earth did they think they were doing in 2014?’

“We are doing incredibly difficult work and trying to predict a future that is decades away and dealing with people that will be living with the consequences into the next century. This is a message, particularly for judges, that we have got to have the humility to recognise that is the kind of challenge we have.

“I don’t have to tell you there is validity in the old saying you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. All we can do is the very best we can; applying our professional expertise to the task at hand.”