Research by Community Care finds two ‘disastrous’ events have potentially sidelined hundreds of the most experienced social workers at a time when children’s services are ‘in crisis’
ISWs say they’re working in conditions that are ‘dangerous’ to children
The controversial fee cap for expert witnesses has forced 80% of independent social workers to find alternative sources of work or consider leaving the profession altogether.
Research by Community Care found 80% of independent social workers (ISWs) have seen their family court work decrease, in some cases dramatically, since the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), formerly the Legal Services Commission, capped the fees paid to experts who give evidence in the family courts.
The unpopular move, which came into force in October 2010, hit independent social work experts the hardest, with their fees capped at £33 an hour in London and £30 outside the capital. Other expert witnesses, such as doctors and psychologists, are still paid around £70-£100 per hour.
Two ’disastrous’ events for independent social workers
The family justice review (FJR) also recommended that expert witnesses should be used more sparingly in the family courts, while research by the family courts body Cafcass, published last month, found courts are now calling fewer experts. The fee cap and FJR have been disastrous for ISWs, one said, admitting, “it’s just not feasible for me to continue this work”.
Nearly all respondents (98%) said they are currently working on fewer than five LAA-funded cases, which marks a significant drop from their workloads before the fee cap and FJR. At that prior time, a third of respondents (33%) were working on between six and 10 cases, while more than a fifth (23%) held 15 or more cases.
ISW workloads before the fee reduction and family justice review:
Current ISW workloads, as revealed to Community Care
The nature of their family court work has also changed, with 63% of ISWs noting differences, including requests for quicker, shorter, less thorough reports and more kinship care assessments and special guardianship orders.
What independent social workers say:
“I have other sources of income so I am able to make a stand regarding this work. I make it clear that it will not work for 30 an hour and maintain my professional charge, sadly this means at times the work is withdrawn.”
“If the LAA seek to limit the time it takes to undertake an assessment I will almost certainly give up being a court appointed expert and look elsewhere for work, even if it means I leave social work altogether.”
“It has been ridiculous to impose such a harsh cut in fees to court professionals who were earning far less than expert witnesses from other professions. The result is that it has potentially sidelined 200-300 of the most qualified social workers in the country at a time when there is also a growing crisis developing in children’s services.”
The survey by Community Care, of 152 ISWs, also found people are concerned about the impact of the FJR’s 26-week target for care cases. More than half (53%) said the deadline had affected their work, with many asked to file reports to much tighter timescales.
Nearly 70% are refusing to work on cases with restricted hours, complaining the hours allocated for assessments are “unrealistic and simply too dangerous for children and the ISW”.
Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), said the findings reflect the experiences of BASW members acting as expert witnesses and “could not come at a worse time for children”, considering care applications continue to rise to unprecedented rates, while Cafcass and local authority teams are stretched beyond capacity.
Mansuri said: “Julia Brophy’s invaluable research has clearly demonstrated the vital contribution ISWs make to complex proceedings – so rather than squeezing them out the Ministry of Justice should be doing everything in its power to ensure the work is economically viable so we do not lose their input altogether.”
Concerns over ‘risky’ 26-week care case target
BASW also remains extremely concerned about the 26-week target, which Mansuri described as “risky to sound decision making for children in the current climate”, adding that the focus “should not ultimately be on speed, but on quality”.
Phil King, co-director of the Independent Social Work Association, said the reduction in expert social work evidence could put children in danger. He said: “The public rightly expect that children who have suffered will be afforded high levels of safety and care when their cases come before the courts.
“The public expect that judges, who make the most fundamental decisions, will be afforded the best available evidence to allow them to make safe and just decisions for their future.
“Sadly, this is no longer the case and mistakes will inevitably be made leading to children either being placed in dangerous situations or adopted when they could be well cared for by a family member.”
The second stage of Dr Julia Brophy’s research into the work of ISWs in the family courts will be published on 5 September.
SOURCE: Community Care