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A guide to fitness to practise

A guide to fitness to practise

Last updated: 6 January 2020


Introduction

This guidance explains our approach at Social Work England to carrying out fitness to practise investigations. It has been designed primarily to help social workers and employers of social workers but may also be helpful to other interested parties.

Our purpose

Our purpose is to regulate social workers in England so that people receive the best possible support whenever they might need it in life. We are committed to raising standards through collaboration with everyone involved in social work.

As established in our founding legislation 'The Children and Social Work Act 2017' we are a non-departmental public body, operating at arm’s length from government. We work in partnership with over 95,000 social workers in England and many other key stakeholders with our central focus being to secure public protection, maintain confidence in the profession and promote high standards of professionalism.

We have been given the tools to achieve this core objective in different ways to other regulators. Our secondary legislation 'The Social Workers Regulations 2018' draws on evidence and recommendations for effective professional regulation from a number of sources. This includes reform proposals for healthcare regulation, the Law Commissions’ recommendations on health and social care regulation and the Professional Standards Authority’s (PSA) Right-touch reform report.

We achieve our objectives by:

  • Setting and maintaining high standards of education, training and continuing good practice.
  • Granting registration only to social work professionals who meet our requirements on education and training, health and good character. Anyone who wants to work in England as a social worker must register with us.
  • Investigating serious concerns about the conduct and competence of social workers that could put people at significant risk of harm or damage public confidence in the social work profession.
  • Working in partnership with service users, professionals and other groups, such as professional bodies.
  • Promoting awareness and understanding of professional regulation, common mistakes in practice and the work of Social Work England.


What do we mean by fitness to practise?

Social workers play a crucial role in society by empowering people to improve their chances in life. On a daily basis social workers are in a position in which they are entrusted with the safety and welfare of members of the public.

Members of the public expect that when they receive support from a social worker, that individual will put their interests first and will be capable of delivering a service that is safe and effective. By acting in a safe and professional manner, social workers safeguard confidence in the services they provide and in the profession as a whole.

When we say that someone is ‘fit to practise’ we mean that they have the skills, knowledge, character and health to practise their profession safely and effectively without restriction. Fitness to practise is not just about professional performance. It also includes acts by a social worker which may damage public confidence in the profession. This may include conduct that takes place outside of the workplace, such as acts resulting in criminal investigations.

We understand the challenges involved in social work and we recognise that mistakes will sometimes be made. Wherever possible, we will work collaboratively with social workers to support them in addressing any problems encountered.

If we decide that a social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired, it means that we have identified serious concerns about the suitability of their character or their ability to practise safely and effectively. This may mean that we have to restrict a social worker’s right to practice or, in particularly serious cases, issue an order which removes a social worker’s right to practise immediately.


What might lead to a fitness to practise investigation?

We can consider concerns that are serious enough to raise doubts about whether a social worker should be allowed to continue to practise as a registered professional, either with some form of restriction on their practice or at all. Examples of allegations that we can investigate include:

Serious shortcomings in professional competence that could put people at unnecessary risk, for example:

  • serious and/or repeated mistakes or omissions in care
  • failure to conduct appropriate and/or sufficient safeguarding assessments
  • failure to respond effectively to a person’s needs
  • health conditions that have not been managed effectively and may put people at risk
  • concerns about a social worker’s knowledge of the English language

Serious shortcomings in conduct that could put people at risk or undermine public confidence in social work services, for example:

  • criminal offences
  • fraud or dishonesty
  • abuse of professional position, for example an improper sexual relationship with a service user
  • serious breaches of service user confidentiality


What we can't do

We can’t:

  • give people professional advice about care received
  • help people with a claim for compensation
  • fine a social worker
  • make a social worker apologise
  • make a social worker provide access to care records or change records
  • order a conclusion in a report to be changed
  • investigate general concerns about a social worker’s place of work (concerns of this nature may be considered by other regulators bodies such as Ofsted or the Care Quality Commission)


Have you complained to the social worker’s place of work?

If you’re raising a concern you think is very serious, it’s better to involve us as soon as possible. However, in most cases it’s a good idea to start by getting in touch with the social worker's place of work.

The employer might be able to deal with your complaint themselves quickly and effectively. They should also be able to help you decide if we need to be involved. If you don’t agree with their decision, you can still involve us later.

Read more about when to complain to a social worker’s place of work


What is the purpose of a fitness to practise investigation?

Fitness to practise powers are designed to deal with shortcomings of conduct, competence or health that are so serious that people requiring the services of a social worker are at unnecessary risk and/or public confidence in the social work profession has damaged.

Incidents of this nature can lead to suitably serious action by Social Work England, like preventing or restricting a social worker’s right to practice. Our powers are not intended to punish social workers for mistakes and we will not conduct an investigation to address matters of low severity.

Isolated mistakes are unlikely to be repeated if a social worker recognises what went wrong and takes action to prevent reoccurrence. In these circumstances we will not find that a social worker’s overall fitness to practise is impaired.

The most appropriate place to resolve minor complaints about the service provided by a social worker is within the setting that the service took place. We will not intervene in a complaint being managed in an appropriate manner by a social worker’s employer under their complaints procedure unless the concerns are particularly serious.

Social Work England cannot secure an apology or compensation. We do not provide legal or professional advice to social workers. If you want this, we recommend that you contact your professional body, indemnity or insurance provider.


What are the different stages involved in an investigation?

We try to investigate cases as efficiently as possible, however, due to the formal requirements in place, an investigation into a complaint usually takes about 12 months to resolve if a fitness to practise hearing is required.

For this reason, we will encourage a social worker facing a complaint to communicate with us from the outset so that we can properly establish the severity of the concerns, whether any action has been taken to remediate the concerns and whether, in suitable circumstances, a social worker would consent to a disposal option that would not require a public hearing.

Further information about this is provided in the ‘accepted disposals’ section below.

The amount of time an investigation takes to conclude will vary depending on the nature of the case and the complexity of the concerns raised. However, we have provided our targeted timescales below in accordance with each stage of a fitness to practise investigation.

Investigations go through the following stages:

Stage 1: triage

This stage involves an initial risk assessment of the information received to determine if it is necessary to open an investigation. The key questions we will seek to determine at the initial assessment stage are whether the matter reported is sufficiently serious to potentially amount to a fitness to practise matter and whether there are ‘reasonable grounds’ to start a full investigation.

In determining whether there are reasonable grounds, we will consider whether there is likely to be any evidence to support the concern, whether there has been a breach of established standards or guidance, whether the incident is isolated or repeated and what action has been taken already to address the concern.

Sometimes we may need to make further enquiries with third parties, such as an employer or the police, before deciding whether to open an investigation. In these circumstances it can take up to 10 days to complete this stage of the fitness to practise process.

We may decide to close the case and advise the person who made the complaint to seek resolution of the matter elsewhere (for example with a different regulator or with the service concerned). If cases are closed in the first stage of our process, we will notify the person who raised the concern, but it is unlikely we will notify the social worker concerned.

For those informants who want to remain anonymous, it is very difficult for us to take action in circumstances where the person raising a concern does not wish to share their identity. In these circumstances we are often unable to open an investigation because we will require consent to share the information provided with the social worker involved in the matter.

It is important to know who witnessed an incident in order to operate a fair, open and transparent process. However, as our primary function is to protect the public, anonymous information that relates to very serious concerns will be investigated as thoroughly as possible.

Listed offences

Our legislation gives us powers to remove a social worker from the register in circumstances where they are convicted of serious offences. Examples of very serious concerns include violent or sexual offences, human trafficking and slavery offences, extortion and blackmail.

In these circumstances, we will inform the social worker that they will be removed from the register and allow a short period of time to challenge this in case of mistaken identity.

Interim orders

If we receive information about a social worker that raises serious ongoing concerns, we will seek an interim order at the earliest opportunity to prevent a social worker from practising, or to place limits on their practice until the investigation is concluded and appropriate action taken.

We will apply for an interim order in cases where the information received indicates that a social worker may pose an immediate risk to the public, to themselves, or where there are other public interest reasons to do so.

Such action may be taken at the beginning of an investigation or at any subsequent point during an investigation if new information received suggests that the risk associated with a case has increased. Examples of cases where we are likely to apply for an interim order include sexual misconduct, criminal investigations, theft or dishonesty in the workplace, or where there is evidence of a serious error in practise that suggests a social worker may be unable to perform their duties safely.

In circumstances where we intend to apply an interim order, our experienced decision makers, who are called adjudicators, will write to the social worker setting out the proposed course of action and the reasons for this.

If the social worker wants to contest the proposal, they may request an oral hearing before the adjudicators to determine the application. If an interim order is imposed, it will apply immediately. It will be reviewed every 6 months after that unless the order is changed or we need to apply to the high court for an extension (where it will be reviewed after 3 months).

A social worker may apply for an early review of the order should new information come to light. In those circumstances the adjudicators will decide whether it is still appropriate for the interim order to remain in place.

Stage 2: investigations

This stage involves a more detailed enquiry into the concern raised and usually takes about 3 months to conclude. During this time, the case will be assigned to a lead investigator, who will gather all relevant evidence from the parties involved and complete an assessment of the case prior to referral to the case examiners.

Our investigators are impartial. They do not take the side of a social worker or the person that raised the concern. Their role is to manage the progress of a case, to gather all relevant information and to support the parties involved in the matter.

The lead investigator will act as a single point of contact for everyone involved during the investigation. We will invite the social worker to provide information to assist with the investigation at the beginning of this stage. Wherever possible, the investigator will speak with the social worker concerned and/or their nominated representative frequently to ensure they have a full understanding of the procedure and the possible outcomes.

Once the investigation has concluded, the investigator will provide all relevant information obtained to the case examiners, along with an investigation report setting out the key evidence. The evidence obtained and the investigator’s report will be shared with the social worker concerned and we will allow sufficient time for a written response before referring the case to the case examiners.

In circumstances where new or conflicting evidence is obtained as a result of the investigation, our rules require us to allow both an informant and the social worker an opportunity to respond to the information obtained before the case is referred to the case examiners.

Stage 3: the case examiners

The task of the case examiners is to look at all available evidence and decide whether there is a realistic prospect that the fitness to practise of a social worker will be found to be impaired at a final hearing.

In circumstances where the case examiners determine that there is a realistic prospect that impairment will be found proven at a final hearing, they will then ask whether there is a public interest in a hearing being held, or whether a more suitable course of action might be established in agreement with the social worker. We call this type of outcome an ‘accepted disposal’.

Cases examiners work in pairs to make decisions. 1 of the case examiners will be a registered social worker, unless the case is about a conviction or personal conduct that is not related to the social worker’s professional practise. Lay and social worker case examiners work in pairs to make decisions.

The case examiners may:

  • close a case without taking any action
  • refer a case to an oral hearing
  • offer the social worker an accepted disposal option as an alternative to referral to a final hearing

The case examiners may also adjourn a case if they need more information to help them reach a decision. In serious cases, case examiners can refer a social worker to an interim orders committee to decide if an interim order of conditions or suspension is needed throughout the lifetime of the case.

Accepted disposal (an order without a hearing)

This is a new power given to Social Work England, that has not been available to social workers under previous schemes of regulation. It is designed to ensure that cases are not referred to public hearings in circumstances where a suitable outcome can be agreed, unless the matter at hand is contested or very serious.

Where the case examiners consider it appropriate to propose an accepted disposal, they must decide on the appropriate disposal in accordance with Social Work England’s sanctions guidance.

The social worker will then be given up to 28 days to consider the proposal. During this time the social worker will be invited to provide further information to the case examiners and the cases examiners may make minor revisions to the proposal on the basis of the information provided.

However, in order for the case to be closed without a hearing, the social worker must accept that their fitness to practise is impaired and agree to the proposed course of action. The accepted disposal outcomes available to case examiners are:

  • a written warning
  • conditions of practise for a maximum period of 3 years
  • suspension, for a maximum period of 3 years

Prior to the expiry of conditions of practise or a suspension the case will be reviewed to determine whether any further action is necessary. In all but exceptional cases accepted disposal outcomes will be published on our online register.

Stage 4: pre-hearing case management

If the case examiners determine that a hearing is required to resolve a case it will be referred to the adjudicators to consider. Management of the case at this stage will be allocated to one of our lawyers to prepare for the hearing. This is the stage in which further evidence is obtained to prepare the case for a hearing.

Typically, this involves interviewing participants that may have had involvement in the matter and drafting statements that capture their evidence. This is also the stage at which Social Work England’s hearings team will be allocated responsibility for the case.

The hearings team is an impartial service that exists to assist all parties, with the aim of ensuring that hearing events run smoothly. Hearing case management officers will communicate with all parties in advance of a hearing, to ensure information is shared in accordance with agreed deadlines and that the hearing event is planned on a suitable date and for a suitable length of time.

Hearing officers will also communicate with social workers and witnesses shortly before a hearing to ensure that they fully understand the nature of the proceedings and that suitable arrangements are made to cater for attendance.

During this period, the investigator will remain the first point of contact in relation to case-specific matters, such as the collection of evidence.

Stage 5: the hearing

At the hearing, Social Work England’s case presenter will set out the evidence relating to our concerns about a social worker and will usually call witnesses to provide oral evidence in support of the matter.

The social worker will have the opportunity to question these witnesses and provide their side of events, which may include calling their own witnesses. A social worker may be represented at the hearing by a professional, such as a lawyer, or another suitable party or they may represent themselves. Social workers do not have to attend the hearing, but it is usually in their interests to do so.

The hearing before the adjudicators will usually take place in public. This means that members of the public, including representatives from the media, have the right to attend and report on proceedings. In exceptional circumstances, evidence at a hearing will need to be heard in private, for example, to protect the private lives of certain parties involved, particularly if there are health issues involved.

Even in circumstances where evidence is heard in private, any decisions the adjudicators make, and the reasons for them, still need to be given in public. The adjudicator’s task at a hearing is to determine whether the case is ‘well-founded’. In doing so, the adjudicators will decide whether:

  • Social Work England has proved the facts alleged to have taken place
  • the facts proven amount to the ‘grounds’ set out in the allegation (for example, misconduct, a lack of competence or health)
  • the social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired as a result of this

In deciding whether a social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired, the adjudicators will consider whether the evidence available indicates that they may still present a continuing risk of harm, to the public. In doing so the adjudicators will consider the nature and the severity of the incident(s) in question and any actions taken since the events to address the concerns raised.

If the panel determines that the case is not well founded at any of the 3 stages above, no further action will be taken and the case will be closed.


What outcomes are available at a hearing?

If the panel of adjudicators decide that a social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired, it will consider whether it is necessary to take further action.

Actions taken by the adjudicators are intended to protect the public and maintain confidence in the social work profession. They are not intended to be punitive. Actions available to the adjudicators if a social worker’s fitness to practise is found to be impaired are as follows:

A warning

A warning does not impose restrictions on a social worker’s practice and will therefore only be used in cases where the social worker is seen to be fit to continue practising without restrictions. Warnings are designed to form a deterrent against similar conduct in the future and send out a message to the profession and the wider public about professional standards.

A warning will appear alongside the social worker’s name on Social Work England’s register for 1, 3 or 5 years, depending on the severity of the findings. Warnings form part of a social worker’s fitness to practise history, which is disclosable to employers and other public bodies and may be taken into account should similar concerns arise in the future.

Conditions of practice

Conditions of practice may be imposed for a period of up to 3 years. Conditions could include preventing the social worker from practising in certain circumstances or restricting involvement in these areas to supervised practice. Conditions may also make positive requirements of a social worker such as to undergo training in a particular area.

A copy of the typical conditions adjudicators may choose to involve is available in our conditions bank.

Suspension

A social worker’s registration can be suspended for any period considered appropriate by the practice committee, up to a maximum of 3 years. Suspension prevents a social worker from practising for the length of the order.

Suspension will be appropriate in circumstances where findings against a social worker are so serious that the they must not practise until they have demonstrated that they have addressed the concerns the adjudicators have identified. Suspension will only be appropriate in circumstances where the adjudicators determine that the concerns are remediable and social workers are expected to use the period of suspension to achieve this.

Removal

If the adjudicators determine that removal is appropriate, the social worker’s name will be removed from the register and they will be prevented from practising as a social worker. This is the most severe sanction and will only be used where there are no other means of protecting the public and maintaining confidence in the profession.

The adjudicators will ensure that any action they take is fair and proportionate and to do this they will consider sanctions in increasing order of severity. Therefore, they will consider all other sanctions before deciding to remove a social worker from the register.

A social worker who has been removed from the register by the adjudicators may apply for restoration to the register after 5 years.


Reviews of conditions of practice and suspension orders

If the adjudicators impose conditions of practice or a suspension order or if these restrictions are imposed by consent at the case examiner stage, a review hearing will usually be arranged shortly before the order is due to expire.

A review may be conducted by employees of Social Work England, such as the case examiners or by the adjudicators depending on the circumstances and the purpose of the review is to determine if the concerns previously identified have been addressed. If it is decided at a review that the social worker is still not fit to practise without restriction, the existing order may be extended or replaced.

During the period in which a reviewable order is in place, a social worker’s compliance with the terms of the order will be monitored by our case review team. In circumstances where there is evidence that the order is not being complied with or other concerns have arisen, we will seek an immediate review of that order. A social worker may also seek an early review of the order if circumstances have changed since the order was put in place.


What to do if your fitness to practise is investigated

A small proportion of social workers will be involved in fitness to practise proceedings at some point in their career. We will always inform a social worker immediately if we decide to open an investigation and we will invite the social worker to communicate with us from the outset.

If we decide that a fitness to practise investigation is required, we will share the information we have received, explain why it is appropriate to conduct further enquiries and seek the following information to assist with the matter within 7 days:

  • Details of the social worker’s current employment arrangements
  • Where an allegation or allegations relate to ill-health, we may ask for details of the social worker’s GP and for consent to seek medical records or undergo a medical assessment

We will also allow the social worker further time (usually 14 days) to provide us with information about the concerns raised, which can contain any information considered to be relevant.

We are required to inform a social worker’s employer of the investigation, keep them updated about progress and tell them about the outcome. However, we will not share details of ill-health with an employer unless they brought the concerns to our attention initially.

We will not publish any information about a fitness to practice investigation at this stage unless action is required to secure an interim order (see above).

If you are a member of a professional body or trade union we recommend you contact that service immediately if you are notified that you are the subject of a fitness to practise investigation. It is likely that your membership organisation will be familiar with our procedures and will provide the support you need.

If you do not belong to a professional organisation you can seek legal representation throughout the investigation and at a final hearing if the matter progresses to that stage. Details of legal firms that specialise in this area of work can be found online at solicitors.lawsociety.org.uk.

You should be aware that legal aid funding is not available for fitness to practise investigations, however you may be able to seek representation from the Bar Pro Bono Unit. Please speak to your investigator for further details.

Our professional standards set out the requirement for you to cooperate fully with any enquiry into your fitness to practise and it will assist us to better understand the matter if you do so.


Support for social workers

We appreciate that involvement in a fitness to practise investigation is likely to be difficult. We want to minimise stress to social workers wherever possible. We have worked in partnership with Samaritans to train our staff involved in the fitness to practise process to ensure they have the skills to help recognise where an individual may need additional support.

Everyone going through fitness to practise procedures will have a named investigator at Social Work England. If you are interacting with our fitness to practise process and feel you would benefit from additional support, you can discuss this with your investigator, and they can advise you where best to find help. Read more about organisations that may be able to support you.

We will keep information relating to health and wellbeing confidential in line with data protection legislation. We may share this information with other organisations who can offer support, but we will discuss this with you first before doing so.

In the interests of fairness, witnesses and informants should be aware that Social Work England may need to share information with the social worker facing fitness to practise proceedings, so that they can understand the case they are facing. Requirements for sharing information will always be discussed with informants and witnesses in advance.

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