I have a current bugbear, but don't get me wrong: I don't want to add to the mass of negativity surrounding the dread word 'social worker'. This post really only concerns the cases where the quality of s7 reports prepared by social workers in private proceedings falls far short of the expected standard. Most reports are adequate, many are much more than adequate. But there is a certain (how shall I say it?) patchiness.
Even Forrest Gump knows that s7 reports are like a box of chocolates (you never know whatchu gonna git - are you going to get the truffle, or the orange creme nobody wants? Apologies for the naff analogy but it's nearly time to knock off for the hols and a big tin of Christmas chocs is beckoning...) As for s7 reports, I've had a few orange cremes lately, and whilst I am the kind of social outcast who is happy to scoff all the orange cremes at the bottom of the tin (I love 'em), when it comes to duff s7 reports there is an important point of policy beneath that sparkly foil wrapping (Okay, enough of the analogy it's making my teeth hurt).
Occasionally a Judge will decide that a s7 report is flawed or that there is some other good reason to depart from a recommendation contained in it. Usually they do so politely and without hurting anybody's feelings. Very occasionally a Judge will decide that a s7 report is so badly flawed that it warrants being spelt out in the judgment in terms which are quite strongly critical of the report writer. I have dealt with perhaps 3 or 4 of these in the last couple of years. Very very occasionally the Judge will be so unhappy with the quality of the s7 report that they will order a copy of the judgment be sent to social services to ensure that they are aware of the court's concern (this can only happen with the court's permission - parties cannot disclose the judgment themselves without permission). Incidentally, I've yet to deal with one of these cases where the media has been present, but I suppose it is only a matter of time before a similar case is identified by the media and permission given for it to be reported.
In most of the cases that I have dealt with where a judgment has been highly critical of an unsatisfactory s7 report that report has been prepared by social services: by a social worker who may or may not be experienced but who has very little experience of private law work or of s7 reports (in one case a CAFCASS report was prepared by a sandwich year social work undergraduate on a work placement at CAFCASS). Clearly this is nothing like a statistically valid sample, but my sense is that (for better or for worse) the organisational quality checks on reports may tend to be more rigorous within CAFCASS than elsewhere. Big generalisation, but that's my sense. In some respects this should come as no surprise since it used to be the expectation (not so any more since CAFCASS has ground to a halt) that most s7 reports were produced by CAFCASS as a matter of course - its what CAFCASS DO, and its more of a sideline for social services. In recent times of course the courts have been forced to fall back on social services to prepare s7 reports where CAFCASS cannot, and no doubt this is an additional pressure on often reluctant Local Authorities who would frankly rather be focussing their resources on child protection and on actual or potential care cases.
If my experience is representative a s7 report from social services will typically be comparatively cursory. Sometimes it will be a slender report that has an air of 'Yep, current situation looks fine, now can I go back to my child protection caseload?' to it. Concerning features I have noted from time to time are reports which
- substitute inappropriate criteria for the welfare checklist (safeguarding as buzzword, Every Child Matters Five Outcomes as glib justification for decision) and / or fail to properly utilise the welfare checklist as a tool for informing the s7 assessment and cross checking of recommendations, in particular a report which fails properly to take into account the significance of change (I think this is probably a by-product of a child protection mindset where the starting point in care planning is often of an already displaced child rather than a status quo with one parent?),
or are prepared by a reporter who
- takes a minimalist approach to the scope of assessment or the breadth of the question posed (least possible work to achieve compliance with direction), or who
- produces an oversimplistic rendering of the issues in the case, a flattening out of the subtleties (because if its not 'care' its not complex).
Again, I generalise. Again, I stress: this is not the norm, it is the extreme end of the spectrum. But I have seen it more than once. And it does worry me.
The reality is this. A publicly funded party will often have funding withdrawn on the filing of a negative report. That's ok if the report is of good quality. If a report is solid then in the vast majority of cases sensible advice will be given to both parties, the matter will be compromised in line with the recommendations, and the parties and children can move on with their lives without waiting for a hearing date and without the stress of proceedings hanging over them. However if counsel advises the report is flawed and there is scope for it to be challenged at final hearing funding may still continue. Almost certainly in these circumstances neither party can be advised to settle - the outcome is still uncertain. One party has the benefit of a recommendation in their favour, the other of some arguments about a flawed report. A contest is inevitable. The matter will have to be listed.
I hold the view that where a Judge has been strongly critical of the quality of a report (whether CAFCASS or Social Services) the interests of justice require that Judgment to be disclosed back to the Local Authority (or CAFCASS). It is essential that reports are of a consistently good quality and Local Authorities, CAFCASS and indeed individual report writers cannot be expected to improve quality if they are not told where they are going wrong. It may be unpalatable to potentially get a well meaning and hard working social worker into hot water with her manager (Although in practice the report has probably been seen and approved by a team manager and someone in legal before ever being filed), but consider these important reasons why judicial remarks about poor quality reports should be disclosed to the organisation responsible for it:
- to ensure the court and the parties can be reasonably confident that the right outcome will be reached for their child and that the court will be put in a position of having a reliable basis upon which to reach a conclusion
- to ensure that public funds are not wasted on unnecessary contested hearings (say, at least 1 day court / judicial time, solicitors and barristers costs etc)
- to ensure that parents are not given false hope of an outcome in their favour or conversely are not unecessarily forced to endure the wait for a contested hearing that could have been avoided, with all the stress that goes with that
- to ensure that delay is not caused for the child, either by increasing the need for contested hearings or by resulting in the need for addendum reports or even reports from alternative agencies to make up in the deficit in information in the first report
- to ensure that the overstretched resources available are not further overstretched by taking up court time / prolonging cases
- to ensure that where cases have with hindsight gone wrong parents can be satisfied that steps have been taken to ensure that such failings will be learnt from and will not be repeated
At the end of the day, it feels good to have successfully undermined a flawed report through cross examination and to have achieved the outcome your client sought in the face of a negative recommendation. But the significance of these experiences goes beyond that child and that case - will the flaws be present in the next report prepared by that social worker? And what happens to parents who are not represented? It is a tough job to unseat a s7 recommendation and a judge has to be given sufficient basis upon which to properly do this, or risk appeal. I don't think this is something most litigants in person would be able to do.
So what happens if the quality of s7 reports declines as a result of an overstretched or failing system, and if simulataneously the availability of public funding or of counsel to take on such cases reduces as a result of public funding cuts? The wrong outcome for children, injustice for parents and families. So whilst it's no panacea to send a critical judgment to social services or CAFCASS by way of feedback, I think it's the least that can be done.
The stark reality given the current state of CAFCASS is that Social Services are likely to be the primary providers of s7 reports for the forseeable future and it needs to be something that their social workers are trained and competent in, not just a sideline.