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Hearings guidance for witnesses

Guidance is for witnesses at fitness to practise hearings.

Hearings guidance for witnesses

Last updated: 19 April 2022


About this guidance

This guidance is for witnesses at a fitness to practise hearing.

A witness is someone who (one of the following):

  • has raised a concern about a social worker
  • is witness to a concern that someone else has referred to us

We understand that acting as a witness can be worrying. We hope this guidance will help you understand your role in the hearings process and what to expect.

What is a hearing?

At a hearing, the social worker (and their representative if they have one) and our advocate (usually our external legal provider) will present the case to a panel of adjudicators.

Adjudicators are independent and make impartial decisions about fitness to practise cases.

As a witness, you will help the adjudicators build a picture of what happened so they can make an informed decision in the case.

Who will be at a hearing?

Most of the time there will be between 7 and 9 people in the hearing room. If the hearing takes place in public, there may also be journalists and members of the public.

The people who are usually at a hearing are:

  • Adjudicators - including of at least a lay panel chair and a qualified social worker.
  • Witnesses - people giving evidence for social worker or for Social Work England.
  • Transcriber - a person who will take notes during the entire proceedings (not all hearings have a transcriber, but sometimes one will be required).
  • The social worker (if they choose to attend) and their representative (if they have one).
  • Social Work England’s advocate – usually our external legal provider (this is the person who will present the case to the adjudicators).
  • Hearings officer - a Social Work England staff member who makes sure the hearing runs smoothly.
  • Hearing support officer - a Social Work England staff member who assists the hearings officer as well as supporting witnesses and others at the hearing.
  • Legal adviser (to the panel) - the legal adviser’s primary role is to ensure that there is a fair hearing.
  • Journalists and other members of the public (at public hearings) – if part of the hearing is private, journalists and any other observers will be asked to leave.

At in-person hearings, there will always be management and staff present. Whilst very rare, if we feel security staff are needed, they will be on site.

Recordings

At an in-person hearing, we will record the audio. For remote hearings, we will record both audio and video.

We use these recordings to produce a transcript of the hearing. We will only ever share the recordings with our transcription provider. However, the social worker and the person who raised the complaint about them, can request a copy of the transcript.

It is strictly forbidden for anyone else to take photos, audio-visual record or take screenshots of a hearing. Anyone suspected of (or found to be) recording the hearing in any way will be asked to leave immediately. We may consider taking legal action where someone has breached this rule.

Public and private hearings

All hearings usually take place in public, except for:

  • interim order applications and interim order reviews
  • hearings that are about the social worker’s physical or mental health

When a hearing takes place in public, that means that any member of the public can observe it.

Sometimes the adjudicators may decide that the hearing should be held partly or fully in private. For example, if your (or another witnesses) personal health details will be discussed.

Where are hearings held?

Hearings can be:

  • remote using video conferencing software
  • in-person in a physical location
  • hybrid – where people can attend the hearing in-person or remotely

Remote hearings

Remote hearings take place using Microsoft Teams (a video conferencing software). This software allows everyone to:

  • join the hearing from different locations
  • be visible and heard by all other participants

If we schedule a remote hearing, we will send you instructions on how to join the electronic hearing. If you want to do a test call, the hearings team can arrange this before the hearing.

Deciding your location for taking part in a remote hearing is important. The space you choose should be quiet and interruption free. The location should have a good quality internet connection and you will need an internet enabled device.

You may want to think about what will be behind you – it is best to pick a neutral background with good lighting. You may also want to avoid having anything in your background that might be personal or that could reveal personal information, such a family photographs or paperwork.

As giving evidence can take some time, you should:

  • charge your device fully in advance
  • have the charging cable easily accessible in case your battery runs low
Camera and microphone

You should keep your camera on at all times unless it has been agreed that your camera will remain off. You should mute your microphone when you are not speaking.

If you’re having technical difficulties

You may want to have our phone number to hand so you can contact us if you have any technical difficulties before or during the hearing.

If you are having technical difficulties during the hearing, you can also use the chat function to alert us. Do not use the screenshare functionality unless the adjudicators tell you to.

In-person hearings

In-person hearings take place at our dedicated facilities in Sheffield at the following address: 1 North Bank, Blonk Street, Sheffield, S3 8JY.

Our building has access for wheelchair users and those less able to stand. Hearings take place on the ground floor of the building.

In exceptional circumstances, hearings may take place in other locations in England.

Microphone system

The physical hearing room is set up with a microphone system. Hearing staff will inform everyone in the room when recording has started. You will not need to press anything to activate your microphone.

Travelling and accommodation

Your hearing officer will contact you about any travel and hotel arrangement needs (if you are attending a hearing in-person).

We will normally ask you to arrange any overnight accommodation and book travel tickets, but we can do this for you if required.

Expenses

We will reimburse you for your travel to and from our offices.
We will send you our expenses policy and form before the hearing. The policy explains:

  • what expenses we will reimburse
  • the process for claiming expenses

Please make sure that you keep all your receipts for travel and expenses if you attend a hearing in-person. After the hearing, complete the expense form and return it to us with all of the receipts. If you have not received this form, please contact us.

We will not usually reimburse expenses for witnesses that have attended hearings remotely. This is because you will not usually have incurred any expenses.

If you would like us to consider any special requirements in relation to travel and accommodation, please let the hearing officer know.

Hybrid hearings

Our hearing suites support video conferencing. This means that we can do hybrid hearings where:

  • some participants are at our offices in Sheffield
  • others join the hearing remotely

Personal requirements

Our equality and diversity policy sets out our duty to:

  • treat people fairly
  • make reasonable adjustments to our processes (if required)

We have designed our hearings process to be as accessible as possible, including:

  • our physical hearing suites
  • how we deliver our hearing service remotely

Our employees have undergone equality and diversity training. They are trained to (among other things) make reasonable adjustments to make sure everyone is able to participate at a hearing.

We want to make you feel as comfortable as possible. If you need any help accessing our services, please call us on 808 196 2273 or email [email protected].

For in-person hearings, this includes (but is not limited to):

  • mobility assistance or wheelchair access
  • a hearing loop
  • a prayer room and breaks
  • dietary requirements, including allergies
  • a nursing room and breaks
  • storage for medication

For all hearings, this includes (but is not limited to)s:

  • sign language
  • translation services
  • large print
  • help with reading
  • having a personal carer or assistant with you
  • having a mental health support worker with you
Guide dogs

You can have your registered service and guide dogs with you.

If you need to have someone with you for support

You can have someone to support you at the hearing, such as a friend or partner as long as they are not also a witness in this case.

They can be in the room while you give your evidence, but they must not get involved with the hearing in any way. They must also be identified before the hearing begins. Your friend or partner would have to leave the hearing room if the adjudicators decide that your evidence needs to be heard in private.

If you need more formal support to give your evidence (such as a support worker, support intermediary or support advocate), the adjudicators will need to agree to this.

If any person disrupts the orderly conduct of the proceedings they may be excluded from the hearing. Witnesses must not be coached. This means no one can interfere with the process of you giving evidence – they cannot help you or tell you what to say.

For hearings in-person, we will not normally pay expenses for people who accompany you.

Agreeing to be a witness

You may have been asked to be a witness by:

  • us (to give evidence in support of the case)
  • the social worker (to give evidence in support of their defence)

It is important that you attend the hearing, give evidence and answer questions so we can make sure the hearing is fair and thorough.

What you need to do

Before the hearing

When you agree to be a witness, our external legal provider will support you to provide a witness statement. This statement will be included in an evidence bundle that will be shared with everyone involved, including you and the social worker.

At the hearing

As a witness, you will give evidence at the hearing. Giving evidence is not intended to be a memory test and you are not expected to learn your statement by heart. You can have your witness statement with you when you are giving evidence.

You may also be asked questions by the:

  • person presenting our case (usually our external legal provider)
  • social worker or their representative

These questions will be to clarify, further explore or challenge the evidence that you give.

You may want to read your written statement again before attending the hearing to refresh your memory. If you would like a copy of you statement, please contact our external legal provider.

If you are worried about being a witness

We want you to feel confident and comfortable giving evidence at our hearings, but we know that it can be very stressful for witnesses.

Please tell the hearings team and our external legal provider as soon as possible if you:

  • feel that you are vulnerable
  • are worried about another issue, such as your health

We will then consider what support we are able to give you.

You can read more about the special measures we can put in place to support you. You may also want to view this list of support organisations for people involved in fitness to practise hearings.

If you are a social worker

If you are a social worker and have been asked to be a witness, you are subject to the professional standard 6.7. This requires you to cooperate with any investigations including into the fitness to practise of others.

Confirmation of location, date and time

Depending on the complexity of the case, hearings usually last between 3 and 5 days. However, we will:

  • try to make sure that you will only need to attend on one day
  • let you know specific dates (if more than one day) and times you will be needed

Before confirming the hearing details, we will usually check that you are able to attend the suggested:

  • hearing dates and times
  • location (either online or in-person)

Once this has been agreed, we will confirm the details. We will usually send this by email, but we may also send it by post or other delivery methods.

If you have childcare responsibilities

If you have specific needs please raise them with us when we are scheduling the hearing. We will discuss what arrangements will help you to attend, for example:

  • giving your evidence remotely
  • helping arrange childcare
  • scheduling a hearing nearer to your home

We do not have childcare available on site for hearings in-person. For health and safety reasons, our staff cannot take responsibility for children, even for short periods of time.

If you can no longer attend the hearing

If you have agreed to attend a hearing to give evidence, it is very important that you keep to that commitment wherever possible. For example, on days where you have committed to being a witness, you should not:

  • try to complete errands
  • pick up children from school
  • attend other appointments

If you do not, this could create delays in the hearing progressing such as the hearing running out of time. This means we have to recall the social worker, their representative, our advocate, the panel and other witnesses to finish the hearing at a later date.

This can be stressful, inconvenient and very costly to the people involved. It can be even more disruptive if we have to completely rearrange a hearing after it has been agreed.

If you can no longer attend the hearing at the agreed time, please raise this with the hearing support officer or hearing officer you have been liaising with as soon as possible.

If you are ill, you will need to send us medical evidence from your doctor confirming:

  • your condition
  • when you’re likely to be well enough to attend

If you cannot make the hearing for another reason, you will also need to send evidence of this.

We need this evidence so we can:

  • decide whether to apply to postpone the hearing
  • provide evidence in our postponement application of why you cannot attend the hearing

If you are unwell on the day of the hearing then you need to let the hearings team know as soon as possible.

On the day of the hearing

Please arrive at the hearing in good time (either remotely or in-person) and allow for any delays like:

  • technological issues
  • transport delays

You should wear clothes that you feel comfortable in but remember that fitness to practise hearings take place in a formal environment. Most people choose to wear clothing that is neat and smart.

Waiting area

On your arrival at the hearing, we will direct you to either a virtual or physical waiting area. The hearings officers or hearings support officers will meet you in the waiting area and:

  • explain what will happen next
  • show you the hearing room where you will give your evidence (if it’s an in-person hearing and there is time).
  • speak to you about the process for giving an oath or affirmation

Our advocate may also ask you questions about your witness statement before you give evidence.

You cannot be present in the hearing room and listen to other witnesses before giving your own evidence. This is because it may influence what you say when it is your turn to give evidence. For similar reasons, please do not to discuss your evidence with anyone before you give it to the panel of adjudicators.

Giving your evidence

The oath or affirmation

Before you give evidence at a hearing, we will ask you to repeat the words of (one of the following):

  • an oath (on a religious text)
  • a non-religious affirmation

Taking an oath or affirmation is an important part of our proceedings. This is because it allows the adjudicators to place more weight on the things you say during your evidence.

Hearings officers and hearing support officers will discuss the process of taking an oath or affirmation before the hearing. However, if you have any particular requirements please let us know in advance.

Religious texts

Each physical hearing room will have a range of religious texts if you choose to take an oath. If you want to take an oath as part of a remote hearing, you will need to have the relevant religious text with you.

Introductions and initial questions

Once you have given your oath or affirmation, the adjudicators will:

  • introduce themselves and ask others in the room to do the same
  • ask you to confirm your signature and that your witness statement remains correct
  • ask any other questions for clarification
Questioning by our advocate

First, our advocate may ask you questions. We are not able to share these questions with you in advance, but if you would like to discuss the process of giving evidence in general, please contact the hearings team.

Questioning by the social worker (or their representative)

Then the social worker (or their representative) will ask you questions about your written statement. This is often referred to as cross examination.

The panel chair will make sure that:

  • the hearing is managed fairly
  • questioning is not unreasonable, repetitive or hostile

No one will be allowed to raise their voice at you while you are giving evidence, but:

  • the questions may come across as challenging
  • you may feel under pressure

If at any stage you need to take a break, please let the panel chair know.

Questioning by the adjudicators

Next there might be a short period of adjournment (break) where the adjudicators will decide which questions to ask you. The adjudicators will then ask their questions.

Their questions will be designed to:

  • clarify issues
  • better understand the evidence you have already given

If the social worker is not represented (or not present), the adjudicators may ask the legal adviser to ask you some questions to make sure the hearing is fair.

Help with how to answer questions

When answering questions, try to be as clear and succinctly as possible.
It’s ok (and very important) to say if you do not remember or do not know an answer. Do not try to guess the answer or say something you think the adjudicators want to hear. Being open about the facts ensures that your evidence is fair and accurate.

Questions about documents

While you are giving evidence, people may show you documents which you have never seen before. Before answering any questions, take as much time as you need to read each document.

If the hearing is in-person, the documents will be handed to you to physically.
If the hearing is remote, you may:

  • be shown the document on screen
  • sent copy of the document by email
Giving evidence at a remote hearing

If you are giving your evidence at a remote hearing, you should not have anyone present in the room unless (both of the following):

  • this has been agreed with the panel beforehand
  • they are not a witness to the case

If the panel has agreed that you can have someone with you, you must not communicate or engage with them while you give your evidence. This is a legal process and any advance discussions around the case can have an impact on the hearing.

Adjournments

It may be necessary for the hearing to adjourn (take a formal break) from time to time, whilst you are in the process of giving evidence. This could be for:

  • lunch
  • the adjudicators to consider the questions they want to ask

During these periods, it’s extremely important that you do not talk to anyone about the:

  • case
  • evidence you are giving or are about to give

This includes anyone involved with the case as well as family and friends.

If you are giving evidence at a hearing held in-person, you will have a room to wait in during any adjournments. This room will only be made available to witnesses. It will reduce the likelihood of you accidently talking to other members of the hearing outside the proceedings.

Food and drinks

If you attend an in-person hearing, we will provide:

  • tea and coffee
  • lunch (if you are required for the full day)

Delays

As with any legal proceedings, there might be delays during the day. We will make sure you are informed of any delay and kept up to date throughout the day. It is important that you do not discuss your evidence with other people during any delays.

On some rare occasions, we may ask you to come back on the following day.

Social media

You must not publish anything online that could jeopardise the case before or during the hearing.

After the case had finished, we would still advise you to refrain from posting information online about:

  • the case
  • anyone who was a part of it

Fitness to practise cases are sensitive and can be distressing and upsetting to everyone involved, including the social worker and other witnesses.

Anyone posting information online whilst the hearing is ongoing will be removed immediately.

After giving your evidence

You will be free to end your participation in the hearing once you have formally finished giving your evidence

You are welcome to stay to listen to the rest of the hearing. However, you must not speak to anyone about your evidence until the panel has announced its final decision.

Read more about the adjudicators’ decision making process in our sanctions guidance.

After the hearing

We will tell you the outcome of the hearing as soon as possible after it has finished.

Publishing the outcome

The adjudicator’s decision will be published on our website.

How we will name you in the hearing details

The names of service users are fully anonymised in decisions published on our website. For example, they would be referred to as ‘Service user A’. The names of other witnesses and third parties will be replaced with their initials.

For more information, please read our publications policy.

What to do if you are approached by a journalist after a hearing has finished
We do not recommend talking to journalists about the case after it has finished.

If you are approached by a journalist, you have no obligation to talk to them if you do not want to.

Remember, you must not speak to anyone about the hearing or the evidence you’ve given (or are about to give) before the hearing has finished and the adjudicators have made their decision.

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