Guide for social workers under investigation
A guide intended to help answer questions about the fitness to practise process and what to expect.
Guide for social workers under investigation
Last updated: 16 December 2022
- About this guide
- What happens when we first receive a concern about you (triage stage)
- How we investigate concerns about you (investigation stage)
- What happens after an investigation (case examiner stage)
- Power to review case examiner decisions
- What happens if your case is sent to a hearing (hearing stage)
- If you get a conditions of practice or suspension order (case review stage)
- How we review your order (review stage)
- Voluntary removal
- Challenging a fitness to practise decision
- Support for social workers under investigation
About this guide
We understand the challenges involved in social work and we recognise that mistakes will sometimes be made. Wherever possible, we will work collaboratively with you to support you with any problems. You can find more information about how to find support.
Only a small proportion of social workers will ever be involved in fitness to practise proceedings.
We only investigate concerns that are serious enough to raise concerns about a social worker's fitness to practise. 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. The professional standards set out the requirements that we expect all social workers to meet.
Fitness to practise is not just about professional performance. It also includes conduct which may damage public confidence in the profession, such as your behaviour outside work. If we decide that your fitness to practise is impaired, it means that we have identified serious concerns about the suitability of your character or your ability to practise safely and effectively. In those cases, we may suspend or place conditions on your practice, or for very serious concerns, remove you from the register.
The following sections are intended to help answer questions about the fitness to practise process and what to expect.
If you have any questions or need help, please talk to us. You can find contact details for named contacts in our letters or you can call us on 0808 196 2274. You can also send an email to [email protected].
Our triage team considers all new concerns to determine whether the concerns raised relate to fitness to practise and whether there are reasonable grounds for us to investigate them.
Your fitness to practise could be impaired due to:
- lack of competence or capability
- a conviction or caution in the UK for a criminal offence
- a conviction which would be a criminal offence if committed in England or Wales
- serious physical or mental health conditions
- a decision by another body that your fitness to practise is impaired
- being barred from working with children or vulnerable adults
- not having the necessary knowledge of English
If a concern is not about your fitness to practise, we do not investigate.
Sometimes we may need supporting information from other people, such as your employer or the police, before deciding whether to open an investigation. We may decide to close the case and refer the concern to other organisations, such as your employer.
How we decide if we need to investigate
Our triage test helps us decide if there are reasonable grounds to investigate your fitness to practise. You can read more about how we decide whether there are reasonable grounds to investigate in our triage guidance.
When we apply the triage test, we carefully consider all the information that the person who raised the concern has given to us. When making this decision, we may consider:
- the seriousness of the concern
- whether there is likely to be sufficient evidence to support the concern
- whether there has been a breach of established standards or guidance
- what action has been taken already to address the concern, including whether you have taken any steps to remediate
- any outcomes of any previous regulatory investigations
Triage decisions are made by senior members of the fitness to practise team, supported by social workers and lawyers when needed.
There is no right to appeal a triage decision. However, triage decisions can be challenged by judicial review.
If we decide to investigate a concern, we will tell you within 14 calendar days using your preferred method of contact. We will share the information we have received and explain the reasons why we need to investigate further.
When we contact you to tell you about the investigation, we will ask you for details of your current employment situation. Please make sure you provide this information within 7 calendar days. If the concern raised is about your health, we may ask you for details of your GP and for your consent to seek medical records relevant to the concerns or undergo a medical assessment. In addition to providing the information requested, you’re also entitled and encouraged to send any further information that you think is helpful at this stage.
Once the investigation has started we’ll be in regular contact to keep you updated.
Who we will tell about the investigation
We will tell your employer (if you have one) about the investigation and keep them updated with our progress. They will also be told the outcome of the investigation.
If the concern raised against you is about your health, we will not share the details with your employer unless they brought the concerns to our attention initially. We will not publish any information about a fitness to practise investigation, on the website or anywhere else, at the investigations stage unless an interim order is needed. You can read more about interim orders.
If you are a member of a professional body or trade union, we recommend that you contact them as soon as possible after we tell you that you are the subject of a fitness to practise investigation. It is likely that your professional organisation will be familiar with our fitness to practise procedures and can provide the support you need.
You can read more about what fitness to practise information we publish in our fitness to practise publications policy.
Case examiner stage
Once an investigation into a concern has finished, the evidence is considered by 2 independent case examiners, a lay case examiner and a professional case examiner. One of the case examiners will always be a practising social worker.
Once a case has been allocated to a pair of case examiners, they will usually decide next steps within 4 to 6 working weeks. Following this, we will communicate the outcome with you as soon as possible.
What you need to do
Our letters will clearly outline what is expected of you at each stage of the process. Please read them carefully and respond within the timescales stated.
You will also be given a named contact in our letters, who you can contact if you are unsure about what you need to do or have any questions. Your named contact will be a member of our case examiner operations team, not a case examiner, and will be completely separate from the investigations team.
You may want to keep your employer updated on the progress of your case. If you are getting independent support, we would encourage you to keep your representative up-to-date.
Our case examiners make independent, evidence-based decisions based on a series of tests. These tests ensure that our processes are proportionate. The case examiners’ decision may be influenced by how engaged you are and whether you demonstrate insight, so please keep in touch throughout the process.
Case examiner decisions
Case examiners review the evidence collected during an investigation to decide whether there is a realistic prospect that the concerns could be proved, and if so, whether your fitness to practise could be found to be impaired.
Impairment means that there would be serious concerns about the suitability of your character or your ability to practise safely and effectively. If there is a realistic prospect of impairment, the case examiners will then decide whether there is a public interest in a hearing being held. You can read more about hearings.
If they decide that there is no public interest in referring the case to a hearing, the case examiners consider whether the case can be resolved in another way.
The case examiners can:
- close the case
- close the case and give advice or warning
- refer the case to a hearing
- offer you an accepted disposal outcome (disposal of a case without a hearing)
Case examiners can ask the investigators to get additional information if they think it is necessary for them to decide on an appropriate outcome. To help you understand the range of possible outcomes in response to concerns about a social worker’s fitness to practise, please read our case examiner guidance and our impairment and sanctions guidance.
In serious cases, an interim order of conditions of practice or suspension may be needed while the case is resolved. You can read more about interim orders.
It is essential that case examiner decisions are made independently and are completely objective. You can read more about how case examiners maintain independence.
Case examiners must declare any conflict of interest that could relate to the case, whether the conflict exists or could just be thought to exist. You can read more about how we manage case examiner conflicts of interest.
Disposal of a case without a hearing
Disposal without hearing, or ‘accepted disposal’, means that we can avoid sending cases to public hearings in circumstances where a suitable outcome can be agreed. Contested or very serious concerns will almost always be sent to a hearing.
If case examiners decide that accepted disposal is possible, you will have at least 14 calendar days, but no more than 28 calendar days, to consider and comment on the proposed sanction.
Case examiners will always propose the minimum necessary sanction to protect the public.
For an accepted disposal of a case, you must accept that your fitness to practise is impaired and agree to the proposed sanctions. If the case examiners find that you do not think that your fitness to practise is impaired, or you do not accept the proposed sanction, your case will be sent to a hearing.
Case examiners can propose the following accepted disposal outcomes:
- no further action
- a warning order
- a conditions of practice order
- a suspension order
- a removal order
Accepted disposal outcomes are published on the website and a social worker's public extract of the register. You can read more about what fitness to practise information we publish in our fitness to practise publications policy.
If you think there is a problem with a case examiner decision, we may be able to review their decision in limited circumstances. Further information on this process (and on completing an application form within three months of the decision) can be found here.
There is no right to appeal a case examiner decision. However, you can challenge the process the case examiners followed in making their decision through judicial review.
Power to review case examiner decisions
If you think there is a problem with a case examiner decision, we may be able to review their decision in limited circumstances. You can find out more information about our power to review case examiner decisions (Rule 12G) and on completing an application form within 3 months of the decision. We would strongly encourage you to read our guidance before making an application.
The hearing is your chance to present your case, so it’s in your best interest to attend it. If you attend your hearing, you will get the opportunity to:
- give evidence yourself under oath or affirmation
- call your own witnesses to give evidence under oath or affirmation, for example to give evidence to your character
- question our witnesses
Representation at hearings
It’s up to you whether you want representation at your hearing, but it may be helpful to:
- get advice from your union or professional body (if you are a member)
- get free legal advice from organisations such as law centre or Citizens Advice
- pay for private legal representation
For all hearings, you can:
- have a legal representative
- represent yourself
- have representation from an organisation you are a member of
- be represented by a friend, family member or someone else (whether they are legally qualified or not) – with the approval of the adjudicators or Social Work England
If you choose to appoint a representative, you should tell us soon as possible. If you do not tell us that you have appointed a representative, we will assume that you are representing yourself.
Before the hearing
Before the hearing, we will invite you (and your representative if you have one) to take part in our pre-hearing case management process. As part of this process, we will ask you to:
- complete a case management questionnaire
- take part in a phone meeting to discuss any practical issues related to the hearing (if necessary)
During this meeting, we will likely:
- find a suitable hearing date
- identify the number of witnesses we want to call (including any witnesses you want to call)
- agree dates when information will be disclosed between the parties
Where are hearings held?
Hearings can be:
- in person in a physical location
- remote using video conferencing software
- hybrid – where people can attend the hearing in person or remotely
The location of the hearing will be decided during the pre-hearing case management process. Further information is available in our remote hearing protocol.
If the panel of adjudicators decides that your fitness to practise is impaired, it will impose a sanction. The sanction imposed by the adjudicators will be the minimum necessary to protect the public. The adjudicators may decide to:
- take no further action
- issue advice
- impose a warning order
- impose conditions of practice order for up to 3 years
- impose a suspension order for up to 3 years
- impose a removal order
If you do not attend your hearing
If you tell us that you do not want to attend the hearing in advance, you can give us a written statement for the adjudicators to consider.
If you do not come to the hearing and the adjudicators are satisfied that you have been given proper notice of the hearing date, they may decide to continue the hearing without you.
If you do not attend your hearing, you will be sent the adjudicators’ decision. Their decision will set out:
- what decisions they have made
- what evidence they have used to make these decisions
- what the overall outcome is
- why they believe the outcome is appropriate
You should read this thoroughly. You can contact a member of the hearings team who can help you with any questions you may have.
If you feel that the decision reached was unfair or that we have not followed our process, you can read more about how to challenge a fitness to practise decision.
What we publish online
At least 2 weeks before the date of the hearing, we will publish hearing details and the allegations against you on our website.
After the hearing, we will also publish outcomes on our website and the social worker's public extract of the register (where applicable). You can read more about what fitness to practise information we publish in our fitness to practise publications policy.
If you have any questions, you can contact the hearings team on 0808 196 2273 or email [email protected].
For detailed information about hearings, read our fitness to practise hearings guidance for social workers.
Case review stage
If you have accepted conditions of practice or a suspension order from the case examiners or had conditions of practice or a suspension order imposed from the adjudicators, you will be supported by our case review team.
Your case review officer will be your main point of contact following a fitness to practise outcome. The case review team will monitor your compliance with your conditions of practice or suspension order for its duration. Shortly after your order has taken effect, your allocated case review officer will make contact with you to support you with that process.
Your case review officer cannot alter the decision made but will be there to guide you through your remediation back to unrestricted practice where possible. Remediation is the process of remedying the concerns that were identified. To fully achieve this, you need to demonstrate that you understand:
- the risk you posed to people and to the reputation of the social work profession
- and comply with the actions you need to take to ensure those concerns do not arise again in the future
Your case review officer will set deadlines for you to submit evidence and can help to explain the conditions of practice or suspension order. Remediation is your responsibility and your case review officer is there to help you stay on track and signpost you to guidance documents and other resources.
You can contact the case review team by sending an email to [email protected].
View or download relevant templates
A review will be arranged by the hearings team shortly before a conditions of practice or suspension order is due to expire. The purpose of the review is to decide whether the concerns which led to the conditions of practice or suspension order have been addressed.
You will be told if your order has ended following your review. This means that you can return to unrestricted practice. You may want to update people who have been involved in your remediation at this stage.
If it is decided at a review that you are still not fit to practise without restriction, the existing order may be extended or replaced with another order.
If your interim suspension or conditions of practice order has ended, but an investigation is ongoing, you should continue to engage with your investigator.
If you breach your conditions or suspension order, you should inform your case review officer as soon as possible so the right action can be taken. This may result in an early review of your order and an increased sanction.
Let us know as soon as possible if you think you may be at risk of breaching your conditions or suspension order so we can help. We may also hold an early review if there is evidence to suggest that the order is no longer appropriate or necessary.
In certain cases, you may be able to request an early review of the conditions of practice or suspension order if your circumstances have changed since the order was put in place.
What is voluntary removal?
If a social worker is subject to fitness to practise proceedings, they may ask us to remove them from the register. We refer to this as fitness to practise voluntary removal.
If we agree to this request, we will conclude the fitness to practise proceedings. This means (one of the following):
- there will be no need for consideration by the case examiners and/or adjudicators (if the case has not yet reached these stages of the process)
- there will be no further adjudication (if the case has reached these stages of the process)
Is voluntary removal right for you?
We recognise that, on some occasions, a social worker who is undergoing fitness to practise proceedings may wish to leave the register. For example, if the social worker has a serious health condition that prevents them from practising (and they do not expect their condition to improve).
Usually, voluntary removal is only suitable for social workers who (both of the following):
- have stopped practising or intend to stop practising immediately
- have no intention to return to social work practice in the future
Social workers should not seek voluntary removal if there is any chance that they may wish to practise as a social worker in England in the future. Whilst they can apply for restoration to the register after being voluntarily removed, we will take the voluntary removal into account when we consider their application.
We advise social workers who are considering voluntary removal to seek advice from their legal representative (or any representative body or union of which they are a member).
Voluntary removal decisions
In deciding whether to grant voluntary removal we will carefully balance (both of the following):
the social worker’s reasons for applying for voluntary removal
whether there is public interest in the fitness to practise process continuing to its conclusion
If there is no public interest, we are likely to grant voluntary removal. This will end the fitness to practise process.
If we don’t agree to voluntary removal, then the fitness to practise process will continue as normal.
Social workers can apply for voluntary removal more than once during the fitness to practise process. However, we will usually reject these applications. This is unless there is new information available since the previous application.
How to apply for voluntary removal
A social worker can apply for voluntary removal at any time during the fitness to practise process.
To apply, complete the voluntary removal application form.
Before applying, we recommend social workers read our detailed guidance on voluntary removal.
Challenging a fitness to practise decision
How can I challenge a fitness to practise decision?
Some decisions within the fitness to practise process have a right of appeal and others do not. In the letter that accompanies the fitness to practise decision, we will tell you (both of the following):
- whether your decision has a right of appeal
- by when you would need to file any appeal with the court (this is usually within 28 calendar days)
If (both of the following apply):
- your decision can be appealed
- you believe that the decision was incorrect
you should consider as soon as possible whether you wish to appeal the decision.
The court can (do any of the following):
- replace the decision for a different one (that the adjudicator or regulator could have made at the time)
- quash the decision
- send the decision back to the adjudicators for it to be remade
- dismiss the appeal
How do I file an appeal?
You will need to file any appeals with the Administrative Court, which is part of the High Court. There will be strict timescales for filing the appeal, and specific court forms you will need to use.
The process of an appeal is governed by the Civil Procedure Rules 1998. It can be complex, lengthy and expensive.
We are not able to advise social workers on the process of filing an appeal. As such, you may want to (do either of the following):
- seek legal advice before issuing an appeal
- contact your local High Court for further information
If you decide to appeal, please let us know as soon as possible (by contacting your named fitness to practise contact). Please also share any relevant court papers.
Where there is no right of appeal, you may be able to consider applying for judicial review.
What is judicial review?
Judicial review is a form of court proceeding. In a judicial review, a judge reviews the lawfulness of a decision or action taken by a public body. It is different from an appeal. A judicial review is concerned with the way in which a decision was reached (rather than whether the decision was the right one).
The court cannot replace the decision with one of their own. They can only order that the decision is made again in a lawful way.
When can I apply for judicial review?
Examples of decisions within the fitness to practise process that may be judicially reviewed include (but are not limited to):
- a decision made by our triage team
- any decision made by the case examiners
- a decision made by our power to review team
- a decision made by the adjudicators at a case management meeting
If you are considering making an application for judicial review of a fitness to practise decision, we recommend seeking legal advice as soon as possible.
How do I apply for judicial review?
You usually need to apply for judicial review within 3 months of the date of the decision being challenged.
The process of judicial review can be complex, lengthy and expensive. There are specific legal processes to follow before you apply to the court for permission to apply for judicial review.
We are not able to advise social workers on the process of applying for judicial review. As such, you may want to (do either of the following):
- seek legal advice before applying for judicial review
- contact your local High Court for further information
If you decide to apply for judicial review, please let us know as soon as possible (by contacting your named fitness to practise contact). Please also share any relevant court papers.
I don’t want to challenge the decision, but I am unhappy with the way my case or concern was handled. What can I do?
If you are unhappy with the service we have provided, you can raise a complaint through our corporate feedback and complaints process.
We are unable to consider complaints made solely about (either of the following):
- the decisions we have made through our fitness to practise processes
- the decisions our independent decision makers have made
If you need any support
We know that involvement in a fitness to practise investigation can be very difficult. We want to minimise stress to social workers wherever possible.
Our processes are designed to be accessible without legal support, but we would always encourage you to seek independent support at the earliest opportunity. You can find more information about independent and confidential support services.
Everyone going through fitness to practise procedures will have a named contact at Social Work England. If you need additional support, please talk to us so we can advise you where best to find help. Our staff involved in the fitness to practise process are trained to have the skills to help recognise where someone might need additional support.
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 always discuss this with you before sharing any information.
If you are struggling with fitness to practise related costs, please speak to your named contact so we can help you find support. You may be able to get help from other organisations offering financial support and guidance.
You will be asked for feedback at various stages of the process, and we would encourage you to provide this in confidence to help us improve. If you believe that one of our processes was unfair, you should read more about how to make a complaint.