Operation of the Family Courts - Justice Committee Contents

Written evidence from Sarah Saunders, Independent Social Worker and Child Care Consultant (FC 19)



1.  The effects of the LSC decision to cut rates to ISWs Expert Witnesses on children.

2.  The negative impact for children if the courts are opened to the media.


3.  I am writing to the Justice Select Committee in the hope that the Committee will come to appreciate the dire state of Justice for Children and Families in 2010. I am an Independent Social Worker and have worked in this profession since 1974.

4.  In 1984 I became a Guardian ad Litem and Reporting Officer (GALRO) prior to the instigation of CAFCASS (Children and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service) in 2001. I worked as a self employed GALRO between 1984 until completing my cases in 2002. I therefore have had considerable experience of the court system as a GALRO.

5.  I have also worked as an Independent Social Worker and Child Care Consultant since 1998. Sometimes this work is court related and sometimes it is not. Some of the work is funded through the Legal Services Commission and some is for Local Authorities. The work I am generally approached to take is complex and demanding and often to very tight deadlines.

6.  Complexity of Inter-related Systems.

7.  The court system is but one part of a complex interaction of agencies, professionals and legal constraints that combine to look at what is in the best interest of the most needy children. It needs to be understood by the Select Committee that every part of this complex process is at breaking point or actually broken down completely.

8.  One of the many reasons for delay is lack of suitably qualified staff across all of the systems that come together for these children. It does not matter how urgent any case may be, it can only proceed as quickly as the staff can be made available to deal with it. It is also of concern that all of the people currently contributing to the existing system cannot function at the highest professional standards because the pressures upon them as individuals are simply too great.


9.  As set out in my introduction, I am an Independent Social Worker (ISW). I have chosen to work in the front line because I feel that this is where my experience can best be used to protect children. The previous Government was extolling the virtues of job that we do I quote from the joint letter to social workers in England Ed Balls MP and Alan Johnson MP 12 March 2009 "Lord Lamming says in his report that, "Protecting children from harm demands skill, determination and, quite often, courage. It is vitally important work that deserves our full support". We agree, and believe this is also true of social work more generally." Now it seems that my 36 years experience and enhanced training is only worth the same as a one year qualified social worker.

10.  As an ISW in court proceedings I am dealing on a daily basis with the most damaged children, with the most complex needs in the most difficult family situations, with parents who very often have major problems of their own. These children urgently need the right decision to be made for them and this can have a critical impact on their life chances. Sometimes these decisions can mean the difference between growing up in their own families or being adopted or spending so much time languishing in temporary placements their life chances are diminished as a result.

11.  Sometimes decisions have been taken by overburdened social workers from Children's Services who simply so not have the time to undertake proper enquiries, or do not have the experience and expertise to carry out such complex pieces of work. Levels of supervision are poor due to the heavy responsibilities placed on team managers who are constantly working at crisis intervention level. There have also been many complaints about the quality of social work training which also contributes to the problems. Very often wider family members have been overlooked and such placements can often enable a child to remain within their family of origin even if it is not with their parents.

12.  On other occasions the Local Authority may have reached a premature view without looking at all the options and this can entrench proceedings. It is therefore important for the court to have independent expert oversight of the relevant issues when such situations arise.

13.  I have been undertaking this type of work for a number of years. I am rarely called to court as my reports can often influence the settlement of cases leading to a reduction in precious court time or at least a foreshortening of it in what would otherwise have been contentious and needing a hearing of many days duration. This is not a drain on the public purse but rather a means of freeing up resources.

14.  I cannot explain to this committee how shocked I was to learn in December last year that a decision to cut the fees to ISWs had been made on the back of Legal Services Commission's Consultation on Family Legal Aid Funding Reforms from 2010 on an entirely false premise regarding the totality of work undertaken by ISWs in the courts in relation to Section 9.5 Children Act 1989, work which is normally undertaken by a CAFCASS worker but which may be undertaken by another "proper person". I have only ever taken instructions on such a piece of work once in 12 years.

15.  The role of the ISW is different from that of the CG. The CG is part of an organisation with support and resources in place, namely CAFCASS. The ISW works alone and responsible for all aspects of their work from professional matters to office management. Their work is wide ranging and is not confined to appointments under Section 9.5. Most of the work is being undertaken to tight deadlines and require fine tuned recommendations in very contentious situations. I have assessed family members, I have been asked to comment on placement issues, sibling separation matters, contact arrangements, findings on injury cases and the non abusing parent's capacity to protect. The role of the CG is defined as relating to the best interest of the child and the Welfare Checklist. The role of the ISW is much more wide ranging and requires a high level of experience. Many ISWs have a range of skills including further qualifications, play therapy, family therapy, attachment training etc.

16.  I believed that the LSC would include ISWs along with all the other experts in the current round of consultations regarding fees for expert witnesses. We have been told by the Ministry of Justice that the decision has been made and will not be reviewed. How can it be fair that one group of experts is effectively excluded from the current discussions particularly when it is clear that the original decision was ill informed about the actual role of ISWs. (I attach a supporting document NAGALRO'S Response to the LSC's Consultation on Family Legal Aid from 2 April 2009, which sets out all the issues clearly.)

17.  It is equally clear that the LSC is making arbitrary decisions on these matters with no information about the actual costs of expert witnesses or an impact study on whether or not such reports actually save costs by driving down the need for lengthy and costly hearings by bring about resolutions outside of court. How can decisions be made about public expenditure on such a basis? How can one group of experts be cut out from consultations, particularly when this group of experts it the crucial profession in terms of expertise in the area of children and families.

18.  Even if the court use other types of experts such as psychiatrists and psychologists they are not going to be able to being to the case the skills that are required to look at the best possible placement for a child or to look at the parenting capacity of the parent or family member incorporating a broad range of factors. This is the role of the social worker. Psychologists and Psychiatrists are reluctant to step outside of their field of expertise and if asked about the placement of the children or parenting issues they will often state that they cannot answer such questions. An example from a recent psychiatric report was as follows:

  • Question: "If you consider Ms X to be suffering from any psychiatric condition, please comment on the potential impact of this on her parenting abilities either currently or in the past".
  • Answer: "It is beyond my area of expertise commenting on parenting skills".

19.  In short, an adult psychiatrist can comment on the parent's mental health but not on their parenting or adult psychologist will be able to comment on the adult's cognitive function but not on their parenting. A child and adolescent psychologist will be able to inform the court about a child's mental health but not whether or not the parent has the parenting skills to care for that child. Similarly the Child Psychologist will be able to comment on the child's cognitive function and behavioural difficulties but will not be able to comment on the capacity of the parent to manage those problems. All experts are careful for obvious reasons not to step outside of their particular field of expertise. Whilst there is a place of such experts in some cases they are not going to be able to address key issues for the benefit of the court.

20.  I am aware that many psychologists and psychiatrists charge around £200 to £250+ per hour for their work. Most ISWs charge around £60 to £70 per hour and produce report which actually go to the heart of parenting issues and children's needs. No assessment or analysis has been undertaken by the LSC about where money on experts is being spent and how effect this spending is. This is neither fair nor reasonable.

21.  The effect of the cut to ISW fees is that many ISWs will leave this field of work feeling that their skills are not recognised and that in comparison to the fees of other experts we represent good value for money. We are currently valued less than the worth of a finger print expert, accountant, meteorologist according to the LSC and whilst I do not question the value of finger print experts, accountant or meteorologists I feel we could all agree that protecting children is really a skill that should be valued at least as much as these experts and in my view more (Annexe B Proposed Rates for Experts).

22.  I doubt that other experts in other field will remain in this type of work if the proposed fee levels go ahead and this will be a sad day for access to justice. It would have been helpful if before arbitrarily making cuts the LSC had actually obtained data and insisted on data being collected across all fees incurred in relation to legal aid not just in relation to experts fees. Now those who are at the bottom of the pile being picked off as easy targets.


23.  I feel very concerned about the issue of media coverage in the family court from the child's point of view. It is well known how the press generally reports high profile cases and even if the children are not actually named it is inevitable that the will be identified within their communities. No research was undertaken by the government with children prior to the enactment of this legislation notwithstanding the the Children Commissioner for England's report following the research undertaken with children by Dr Julia Brophy, which clearly demonstrates that the children involved in public and private law cases have a very strong view about such a prospect:


24.  It is also a major concern that children will not feel free to talk about their concerns for fear of how this will be reported by the press. It is currently difficult enough to help children to feel safe enough. This will make it nigh on impossible in my view. The research also shows how children take on responsibility for the court situation even when they are clearly innocent of any blame, but they clearly feel that they will be vilified and labelled. Frankly looking at reportage by some in the media it is easy to understand why children would feel this way.

25.  It will be the final irony that the court system that is there to protect children, via openness to the press will actually put these children at risk within their own communities to having every detail of there lives opened up for public scrutiny and they will not be able to defend themselves in the public arena. Given what we know about the backgrounds of many of the children in the care system I think it would be fair to say that they have already suffered enough without the indignity of having their lives picked apart on Facebook, Twitter and every newspaper and TV news programme in the country. They have their whole lives in front of them and a chance to move on an lead a new life if they are placed elsewhere. If everything becomes public, even if anonymised it is difficult to know how these children are likely to remain unaffected by it and for it to dog them throughout their lives.

26.  The position of children in this situation, not only in public law cases but also private law matters has to be carefully balanced against the benefits of openness. Whilst I accept that is is important to inform the public about these difficult decisions I do not feel that the risks that this kind of openness will bring to the children concerned by providing every detail of a child's life to the press can be outweighed by the right of the public to know. It is not the child's fault that they are in the care system or that their parents are having a difficult divorce. Information about decisions reached in courts can be made available via suitably anonymised judgements being made available, which has increasingly been the case.

27.  Finally, the Select Committee might also want to bear in mind that such levels of openness as have been indicated such a complete disclosure of reports to the press and naming of social workers and experts will create a further disincentive for people to chose to go into this area of work thereby further reducing the already diminishing pool of experienced people willing to enter the court arena. I do not see how this would be in the interest of the children that the courts are there to protect.


28.  No one in this country can feel they are immune from the current financial situation. However, for all of the personnel and agencies concerned with this particular area of work further cuts are taking place against a backdrop of:

  • poor funding over a prolonged period of time;
  • a much increased workload in terms of the numbers of cases coming through the system;
  • an environment of bureaucracy which does not assist the people it is there to serve; and
  • a work force from a range of different fields who all feel under-valued including court staff, Children Panel solicitors, social workers, CAFCASS workers and ISWs.

29.  In 36 years of social work I have never felt so depressed about the future. Every single professional with whom I come into contact at the moment is talking about how they are going to get out and either retire or do something else as they can no longer do what they were trained to do. The NHS has had investment, education and schools have had investment but nothing has been done to protect the most needy in our society by making sure they are offered well trained, well supported social workers who can undertake preventative work and act swiftly to protect children in need. I have always felt that I was making an difference and doing something worthwhile as a Local Authority social worker, as a GALRO an now as an ISW. The Select Committee needs to understand that a huge tranche of very experienced people are about to leave this type of work taking their knowledge and expertise with them because they do not feel valued by society or by the government.

30.  I wonder how many children are going to have to die before something happens to change the direction of the tide.

September 2010

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