Children’s needs are paramount, writes Harry Stevenson
On 27 March, two social workers from City of Edinburgh Council won their appeal against their conviction for contempt of court. And the entire profession breathed a sigh of relief.
Let’s be clear though, we do not support deliberate action to frustrate the role of the courts or Children’s Hearings. These are part of the checks and balances we need in order that we as social workers remain accountable for our actions.
In his ruling, which supported the actions of the social workers, one of the highest Law Lords in Scotland, Lord Carloway the Lord Justice Clerk, also endorsed and clearly understood the social work profession. That’s a huge relief too for a profession that is often criticised by the media for not taking action.
The case, which first hit the headlines in December 2013, saw two social workers held in contempt of court in a case about contact arrangements between two young children in foster care and their mother.
All social workers were concerned at the judgement of the Sheriff, as it seemed to suggest that the legal process should be adhered to before the needs of children.
Now, all social workers will be delighted that the appeal court ruling, like the law, is very clear – children’s needs and their protection is paramount.
More than that, the ruling also acknowledged that circumstances change and social workers need to be able to react to that. The wheels of justice grind slowly, but people’s lives change fast. Social workers need to be able to protect people without waiting for permission to act. Lord Malcolm, in his part of the ruling acknowledged that, stating: “the court must be careful to avoid an overly protective attitude towards its own earlier decision”. He went further stating that the social workers were “under a professional duty to respond to the position as it developed”.
Social work is all about placing people at the heart of decision making and this ruling supports that.
The second element of this case which concerned our profession was the fact that it was the social workers themselves who were held in contempt of court, not the local authority on whose behalf they were acting. If you are a social worker working with people with complex lives in difficult circumstances and advocating on behalf of vulnerable children, the decision of the Sheriff to convict individuals and not their employing authority raises important issues.
Social workers take difficult decisions, but they are not free agents. Social workers making decisions about the removal of a child from their family or deciding to stop parents seeing their children do so as an agent of a local authority. If the Sheriff’s decision had not been overturned, it would have set a precedent that would have had a profound effect on our profession and may well have affected the recruitment and retention of the people we need to work in the profession.
In addition, it could affect the way social workers practice. What would happen if social workers were cautious? What would happen if they were too scared to act on their professional judgement, in case they were held in contempt? What would happen if fear influenced what they did?
The consequences for vulnerable children could be tragic. Again, Lord Malcom acknowledges this: “It is not difficult to envisage an alternative scenario in which no effective steps were taken and real and lasting harm was caused to the children, leading to the social workers being the brunt of strident criticism.”
There is no doubt that the social workers in Edinburgh were standing up for two vulnerable children, and that they took a difficult decision in order to protect these children.
Now we have a ruling from the highest court in Scotland which openly supports the profession and understands its role. This is extremely important and very welcome.
We hope now that the profession can move on and feel strengthened and supported by this ruling. Scotland needs confident and competent social workers; it needs new people to come into the profession and experienced, committed people to remain in the profession.
As part of the social services workforce, our vision is a socially just Scotland with excellent social services delivered by a skilled and valued workforce which works with others to empower, support and protect people, with a focus on prevention, early intervention and enablement.
Without social workers, we cannot achieve this.
• Harry Stevenson is president of Social Work Scotland