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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: 22 July 2022


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 doubts 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 permanently.

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].  

Triage stage

Our triage team considers all new concerns to determine whether there is evidence of impairment. Impairment means that there would be serious concerns about the suitability of your character or your ability to practise safely and effectively.

Your fitness to practise could be impaired due to:

  • misconduct
  • 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 any evidence to support the concern
  • whether the incident is isolated or repeated
  • 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 social workers, lawyers, or a senior membe of the fitness to practise team.

Investigations stage

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 against you is related to ill-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 related to ill-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, to the website or anywhere else, at this 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 not a 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
  • 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 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 sanctions.

Case examiners will always propose the minimum necessary sanction to protect the public. Any amendments you propose will be carefully considered by the case examiners, and if it is safe to do so, they may make minor changes to the proposed sanction.

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 is sent to a hearing.

Case examiners can propose the following accepted disposal outcomes:

  • no further action
  • advice
  • a written warning
  • conditions of practice
  • suspension

Accepted disposal outcomes are published on the website and the online register. You can read more about what fitness to practise information we publish in our fitness to practise publications policy.

Read more about what happens if your case is resolved by an accepted disposal outcome.

Hearing stage

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 defence organisation 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 pre-hearing questionnaire
  • take part in a phone meeting to discuss any practical issues related to the hearing

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.

Hearing outcomes

If the panel decides that your fitness to practise is impaired, it will impose sanctions. The sanctions imposed by the panel will be the minimum necessary to protect the public. The panel may decide to:

  • take no further action
  • issue advice or a warning
  • impose conditions of practice on your registration for up to 3 years
  • suspend your registration for up to 3 years
  • remove you from the register

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 in the post. Their decision will set out:

  • what decision they have made
  • the outcome they have reached
  • why they believe the outcome is appropriate
  • what evidence they have used to come to this decision

You should read this thoroughly. You can contact your named officer who can help you with any questions you may have.

If you feel that your hearing was unfair, please speak to the hearings officer you have been in contact with. If your hearing outcome is appealable, the hearings team will let you know. If you believe you have grounds to make an appeal of the decision, then it is your right to do so. We would recommend that you to seek independent advice before making this decision as it can be very costly.

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.

View upcoming hearings and decisions.

After the hearing, we will also publish outcomes on our website and the online 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, please call us on 0808 196 2273 or email [email protected].

Detailed guidance

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

Case review officers set deadlines for you to submit evidence and can help 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 us by sending an email to [email protected].

View or download relevant templates

Review stage

A review will usually 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.

If your interim suspension or conditions of practice order has ended, but an investigation is ongoing, you should continue to engage with your investigator.

Early reviews

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 of a new concern.

In certain cases, you may be able to request an early review of the conditions of practice or suspension order if circumstances have changed since the order was put in place.

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. We have worked in partnership with Samaritans to train our staff involved in the fitness to practise process to make sure they 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.

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