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New study refutes suggestion that independent social workers delay care proceedings

Oxford research says that delays might be reduced by early appointment of ISWs

Research from Oxford University challenges concerns about duplication and delay through the use of independent social work (ISW) assessments in family court proceedings. On the contrary, the report argues that delays might be reduced by the earlier appointment of ISW experts. 

The Oxford study - The Contribution of Experts in Care Proceedings:  Evaluation of Independent Social Work Reports in Care Proceedings - was carried out by Dr Julia Brophy, Charlie Owen, Judith Sidaway and Dr Jagbir Jhutti Johal of the the Department of Social Policy and Intervention. The research came from  a joint initiative between Nagalro, BASW and CISWA-UK, concerned about the lack of an evidence base for current policy towards independent social work expertise.  It was commissioned by CISWA-UK and is the first stage of what is hoped will be a two-stage project.

The project is based on 65 cases concerning 121 children and 82 reports for courts in England and Wales. The sample was drawn from the records of three independent agencies providing ISWs.

The researchers comment that concern has been expressed that ISWs simply duplicate existing parenting assessments, that they cause delay and that there is a high use by parents seeking 'second opinion' evidence based solely on claims under Article 6 of the ECHR. They say that findings from the study do not support those concerns.

It was found that ISW reports mostly provided new evidence not already available to the court.

In the absence of changes within cases and purposeful delay, ISW reports were almost always delivered to the date specified in the letter of instruction. There was no evidence that reports delayed scheduled hearings.

Nor was there evidence of high use of ISWs by parents seeking second opinion evidence based solely on Article 6 claims under the ECHR. Indeed as a 'stand-alone' application in this sample this was rare.

Findings indicate that courts would be severely hampered in the absence of access to the body of expertise and the evidence provided by ISWs, not least in case managing to meet the 6 month deadline for care cases recommended in the FJR and accepted in the Government's response to it.  Any legislative changes and adjustment to the Family Procedure Rules and Guidance would need to reflect an understanding of that finding.

Moreover as expert witnesses for the court the evaluation identified that ISWs have 'added value'. They are able to engage with difficult and disaffected parents where, for whatever reason, relationships with the local authority are frequently at an impasse, where parents and children face a powerful state agency and where certain child welfare questions remain outstanding. While the independence and status afforded by the court process cannot be underestimated, that alone does not explain the ISW's success in this regard.

Alongside considerable skills and experience in assessing vulnerable parents and children within care proceedings, other values follow from the ISW's role and responsibilities as an expert for the court:

The researchers conclude that there has been something of a misconception in the debate about independent social work practitioners in care proceedings: their work has been portrayed as simply doing what social workers do (i.e. fulfilling the welfare task). That, the researchers say, is not correct: whilst they undertake a welfare task providing high quality welfare reports, they also have an additional role. It arises from their duties and responsibilities to the court as an expert witness and permits them to undertake tasks for the court which a social worker – as a professional witness for the local authority – cannot. Moreover the work of the ISW can move cases forward in a way not achievable by local authorities or children's guardians.

The report is available in full by clicking here.

For news of a pilot study highlighting the advantages of early involvement of children's guardians, please click here.