Court cases trauma for stressed social workers – UNISON report

Heavy workloads are leaving more than nine in ten (90 per cent) social workers without enough time to prepare for court cases involving vulnerable children and families, a new report from UNISON reveals.

Half the social workers questioned (49 per cent) admitted they were not confident when appearing before a judge.

The report – Social Work, the Courts and the Consequences of Transparency – compiled a year after new guidance about open family courts was issued by the government, also shows that four in five (80 per cent) social workers would consider leaving the profession if they thought they would suffer as a result of being named in court.

One social worker, who had received no training on giving evidence, described being cross-examined in a High Court hearing as: “An awful experience. I felt that I was a lamb to the slaughter.”

Another said her appearance at a tribunal ten years earlier: “Still makes me shudder with fear when I think back.”

Official figures show a 50 per cent rise in the number of social workers leaving the profession* in the last two years. While this is not solely down to stressful court work, UNISON is warning that publicly naming those involved in contentious cases could force more to quit.

Surprisingly, seven out of ten (70 per cent) of the 1,080 social workers surveyed said they were not aware their name might be made public when court judgements were made. Over half (57 per cent) said no steps were taken by their employers to protect them in these circumstances.

The report also highlights a gap in social work training with one third of respondents saying it did not prepare them properly for writing court reports or presenting to a judge. The situation is even worse for newly qualified social workers** where just one in ten surveyed said they had been well-trained.

UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis said: “Social workers play a huge part in the legal process, advising on life-changing decisions for vulnerable individuals and families. They should have all the support and training possible to give them the confidence to face what can sometimes be a traumatic experience.

“If social workers feel under pressure and are worried about being publicly pilloried they will not be able to perform to the best of their ability and their clients are likely to suffer. This is an issue that is obviously having a major impact and needs to be addressed before we lose more social workers – something the UK can ill afford.

“It is unacceptable that social workers are having to carry the can in court for decisions which their supervisors have overseen.

“We are calling on all employers to agree to protect social workers from what is potentially a very damaging situation. Local authorities must also exercise their duty of care with better handling of any media attention and providing staff with appropriate legal support.”

UNISON is calling for social work training to include modules about presenting in court and writing court reports, and for local councils to protect social workers who are named in court or put in requests to prevent them from being named in the first place.

Guidance to protect social workers from the potentially harmful effects of being named in court judgments has been produced by UNISON.

Notes to editors:

Social Work, the Courts and the Consequences of Transparency includes comments from social workers:

  • “Although it is difficult training for the actual stress that giving evidence brings, more could be done.”


  • “I recently attended a court hearing where I was informed that the judgment was to be published with me being named as the practitioner working on the case. This came as a complete surprise and I was left feeling exposed and vulnerable.”


  • “Following my last appearance in court I was assaulted in the court building by a family member.”
  • “I was a social worker working in child protection and not so long ago I was mentioned in a court judgment by name. A lot of untrue things were said by the mother in court that went unchallenged. I was unprepared for this and had no support from my managers. I left child protection as a result.”


  • “Court cases are increasing in number. We haven’t recognised the importance of social workers all having court awareness sessions.


  • “I qualified around two years ago and wrote my first report two weeks into the job, having never seen a court report. University did nothing to prepare me for any aspect of court work.”

UNISON represents 40,000 social workers in the United Kingdom. The online survey was emailed to a random sample of 10,000 and 1,080 responded.

UNISON has growing concerns about the effect this is having on morale, recruitment and retention in the social work profession.

*Source: Children’s Social Work Workforce, Department for Education

Turnover in 2012: 11 per cent (one in nine), in 2013 15 per cent (one in seven), and 2014 17 per cent (one in six).In the last two years, there has been a 50 per cent increase in social workers leaving the profession.

**Newly qualified social workers are in their first 12 months of practice.

A copy of Social Work, the Courts and the Consequences of Transparency is available from the press office.


UNISON (National News Release) – Tel: 0845 355 0845