The law and social work practice

Why Do Social Workers Need To Know The Law?

“I want to be a social worker, not a lawyer” (Robert Johns p.1)

The aim of this assignment is to consider the importance of law for social workers and discuss the professional skills and values which underpin social work practice in England and Wales today.

I will firstly look at how law frames social work practice

The relationship between the law and social work practice is complex. Although an in-depth understanding of how the law affects every day social work practice is essential, it also involves much more than just learning the legal rules. “Constant reflection and critical analysis of your own values and practice of social work are required to be an effective practitioner” (block 1 p130).

However, Jeremy Roche argues that although the law provides a framework it cannot tell social workers what to do in every circumstance. The law cannot always resolve the dilemmas and tensions that face social workers everyday. “Above all, the law cannot substitute for sound professional practice”. (Robert Johns p.7)

How The Law Is Made

The Law provides a framework for practice which grants the social worker with powers to take appropriate action. A starting point for understanding the legal framework is Statute law which is one of the main sources of law and is contained in an Act of Parliament. The Children Act 1989 is an example of statute law.

The language of statutes can sometimes appear confusing - for example the meaning of ‘significant harm' is not described in detail in the Children Act 1989 and can therefore be open to interpretation. A social worker will therefore have to provide evidence that the child is likely to suffer from significant harm and such decisions will be made jointly with legal advisers and managers (block 1 p.51)

Case law is the second source of law which is developed by the courts from judgments made on cases brought before them (block 1 p.51). An example of case law that has an impact on society is the case of Diane Pretty who had a terminal illness causing a physical disability and she wished to have the right to choose when to die with the help of her husband. Diane's argument was that “the right to life contained within Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) also implied a right to die” (block 1 p.52). However, her application was rejected by the court who stated that Article 2 was not concerned with the quality of life. (block 1 p.52.

Although the language of statutes can be difficult to understand, there are two words which will help social workers to interpret statutes and they are ‘duties' and ‘power'.

Legislation provides social workers with certain powers as well as duties that social workers are legally bound to fulfil. An example of this is shown in the case study of Masie when her need for a service requires as assessment as decisions will be influenced by not only the social worker's commitment to values and best practice but by the legal duties and powers. However, it can be frustrating when it is clear that a service is needed for a service user but there is insufficient money to provide that particular resource.

A further example of the importance for social workers to have a thorough knowledge of the law in order that they can make decisions on appropriate legislation is shown in the case study of the Clarke family (p 82 of block 1 book) where the social worker attends the family home on an arranged visit and finds Emily (mother) under the influence of alcohol while the children were playing with cutlery in the kitchen. This is clearly an issue of child protection as the children are likely to suffer significant harm if they remain in the care of their mother. It therefore makes it a duty for the local authority to investigate and provide services as well as having the power to protect the children.

How The Law Underpins Social Work Practice:

The law which underpins social work practice was radically redrawn in the 1980's following a series of scandals - for example the events in Cleveland where social workers were accused of an over-readiness of taking children into care and the fact that the parents felt totally undermined and were not afforded proper rights to present their views. Interestingly the Cleveland Report also acknowledged the dilemma of child protection work “namely that social workers are “damned if they do, and damned if they don't” (Robert Johns p.10)

As a consequence of the events in Cleveland, many key principles such as the accountability of social workers to the law are now enshrined in the Children Act 1989, and according to Robert Johns, social workers welcomed the clarity this would have (word better)

Values & Principles

Throughout my reading and my experience as a social work student I have learnt that before we can even think about working anti-oppressively within the law we need to look at our own experiences. Everyone has values and principles which shape our behaviour and perceptions of the world and it therefore important that social workers reflect on their values as their decisions will have a direct affect on the services they provide when practicing. (p126 block 1)

Although social work values underpin decision making when working with service users, there are also values embedded in legislation which support social work values. However, there maybe areas of conflict or tension between legal values and social work values, particularly when a service user is deemed to be entitled to certain community services look at page 129 and expand………………….

There are also areas of the law that social workers may find difficult to address, for example, the Diane Petty case which I discussed earlier, where a commitment to social work values could mean respecting Diane's wishes.

In order to demonstrate my own professional development as a social work student, I will briefly look at how the legislation underpins the assessment of children in need and discuss the importance social work values while completing an assessment.

A child in need assessment should provide a clear understanding of the child's needs and is based on the provision of the Children Act 1989 and 2004, the principle that underpins the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (Department of Health, et al 2000), Working Together (Department of Health, 1991), and Every Child Matters which provides the legislative foundation on which policy and guidance has been built to inform social work practice in assessment.

The social worker's knowledge of the law and service provisions can be critical in empowering service users (Block 1 p20). It is essential for the social worker to work in a way that is both anti-oppressive and which recognises cultural perspectives. Anti-oppressive practice means “recognising power imbalances and working towards the promotion of change to redress the balance of power”. (Dalrymple and Burke 2003, p.15).

Social workers have to make decisions in their everyday practice based on their own values and good practice is about involving service users through all stages of the assessment, inviting them to meetings, informing them of their rights and options as well as working in a way that is accountable (Thompson 2006). This would also support social work value D “Value, recognise and respect the diversity, expertise and experience of individuals, families, carers, groups and communities” (GSCC, 2002).

It was interesting to note that Jane Aldgate (in Law and Social work book) looks at both the strengths and weaknesses of the assessment framework and although acknowledges that the shared language between professionals is undoubtedly a strength, Calder and Hackett, 2003 (in law in social work) criticise that the omission of risk as a separate category can lead to professionals underestimating risks when completing an assessment.


The law provides a framework to guide and assist social workers in making crucial decisions and preventing anti-discriminatory practice as well as providing a framework of legal rights for service users. Principles of social justice and human rights are fundamental to social work and without an in-depth understanding of the law and how it affects social work practice, it would be impossible to practice effectively.

Throughout my experience as a social work student together with my research and reading for this assignment it has become clear that in order to comply with the General Social Care Council Codes of Practice (2002) social workers must view the law as an integral part of their role.