Saturday, 29 November 2014

A spat in the courts

I am very concerned by reports that the criticisms made by a judge of social workers, who had given evidence before him in adoption proceedings concerning a young boy, have been made public.

In addition to naming the social workers the judge said that one was “… very begrudging indeed in his evidence and … intent on saying only things which supported the local authority's case and … very reluctant to make any concessions which would undermine that case.” Of the other he said that her evidence “… was totally discredited …” and that she had contradicted herself.   The judge said that he “… had the very strong impression that the local authority witnesses were intent on playing up any factors which were unfavourable to the grandparents and playing down any factors which might be favourable.”  In those circumstances, he said he found it very difficult to give any weight at all to their evidence.

I have no problem with the judge disagreeing with the social workers or their evidence. Adoption proceedings will involve evidence from people who sometimes have radically different perspectives. Making a decision about adoption is one of the most complex issues facing a court and it is inevitable that different parties will see things differently. As the representative from the local authority concerned is reported to have said: “This case illustrates the complexities and difficult decisions that have to be made while striving to act in the best interests of children”

And I don’t have a problem with the judge thinking that the social workers' evidence was not very good. Inevitably there will be times when professionals’ performance in court will be judged to be below par.

But I do think that it is very unfortunate that it has all come out in a public forum. The social workers concerned have no real avenue open to them for self-defence and naming them seems to me to be wholly unnecessary and completely counter-productive.

The whole approach of criticising people in public like this seems to be part of a blame culture, in which when things do not meet our expectations or standards we immediately point fingers, rather than to try to find out what went wrong.

Had the judge in this case been able to report his concerns confidentially to an impartial organisation, which existed to examine failures in the family courts, then perhaps some objective assessment of what, if anything, went wrong in this case could have been made and the lessons made public, not the names of individuals. Had such a confidential process existed it is likely that the social workers concerned would have co-operated with any inquiries (precisely because they were confidential) and so both sides of the issue would have been examined.

Naming and shaming is not a good way to increase the safety or the quality of services. The blame culture has the effect of causing all professionals to practice defensively and not to co-operate with inquiries when things go wrong.