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Virtual fitness to practise hearings likely to be the norm in future

Social Work England consults on rule changes

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 11 January, 2022

Virtual fitness to practise hearings look set to continue to be the most common format post-Covid under rule changes being considered by Social Work England.

The move is one of a number of operational shifts introduced during the pandemic which the regulator is consulting on making permanent.

SInce the first lockdown in 2020, almost all hearings have taken place remotely. Social Work England said its feedback is that participants are largely in favour of online hearings.

It said: “Witnesses and social workers have told us that travel, time commitment and unfamiliar surroundings are a barrier to attending a hearing in person and with them engaging with the process.”

A spokesperson for the regulator said no decision is be made until after the consultation ends on 23 February. But it is expected that social workers will still be able to opt to have their hearing held face-to-face. The default location for this is Social Work England’s Sheffield headquarters.

Colin Anderson, senior advice and representation (A&R) adviser for BASW, said while he was initially cynical about virtual hearings he has changed his mind.

“I think they have worked really well in practice. My reservations were around the cross-examining of witnesses. I thought that might be more difficult to do when you aren’t there to see them. But my concerns were attenuated.”

Not having to travel to attend hearings was also a benefit, both to registrants and their representatives, said Anderson.

“It can be an equalizer having remote hearings. If someone lives in Plymouth it is a long way to go to a hearing in Sheffield.”

But Anderson added: “If a registrant is really insistent that they want to exercise their right to be heard in person they should be given that opportunity – we wouldn’t want to see that right removed.”

Lindsey Huxtable-Dowd, senior practitioner with the A&R service, said another positive is that virtual hearings can be less intimidating.

“The chair and panel are all in the same boat – you don’t have this row of people facing you.”

But she added: “I wouldn’t want everything online all the time as there are a lot of benefits being in the same room as a member we are representing, particularly around managing anxiety.

“It is the softer stuff – it’s hard to reassure people when you are not in the room with them.”

The proposed rule changes Social Work England is consulting on are:

  • Changing the definition of ‘place of hearing’ to make it clear that they can take place virtually
  • Making permanent temporary rules introduced during the pandemic to allow communication to be sent by email rather than letter
  • Clarifying who social workers can have notices and correspondences of hearings, appeals and decisions sent to

The regulator said: “While we are considering how we send information to everyone involved in a hearing, we also feel it worthy to clarify who we can send correspondence to.

“We propose to amend our rules to make clear that, where a social worker is represented by a lawyer (either solicitor or barrister), trade union, or other professional body, they can ask us to send any correspondence about their appeal or fitness to practise to their representative.”

Social Work England urged social workers, representative bodies, social work trainers and educators, employers and people with lived experience of social work to respond to the consultation.

Responses must be received by 23 February 2022. Email responses to consultation.responses@socialworkengland.org.uk or click here to find out more