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Independence of case examiners

This guidance outlines how interactions between case examiners and other Social Work England employees should be conducted.

Maintaining the independence of case examiners

Last updated: 26 November 2019


Introduction

Case examiners are employees of Social Work England who determine the appropriate next steps for cases referred to them by the investigators.

A case will be assigned to 2 case examiners: someone with no background in the social work profession (a ‘lay case examiner’) and a practising social worker (a ‘professional case examiner’). Together, they decide if there is a realistic prospect that the adjudicators will find that a social worker’s fitness to practise has been impaired. If so, they then decide whether there is sufficient public interest in the case being referred for a hearing.

If the case examiners decide that a case does not need to be referred to adjudicators, they may dispose of the case without a hearing. They must decide the appropriate outcome with reference to the case examiner guidance and Social Work England’s sanctions guidance.

It is essential that case examiner decisions are made independently and are completely objective. Case examiners and other Social Work England employees have a shared responsibility to make sure the integrity of the decision-making process is maintained. The underlying principle is that case examiner decisions must not be influenced, obstructed or otherwise interfered with by other employees of Social Work England.

Case examiners are supported by other Social Work England employees. This guidance outlines how interactions between case examiners and other Social Work England employees should be conducted.

Expectations of the case examiners

Case examiners are accountable for their decisions and actions. They should demonstrate the independence of their decisions by clearly setting out the evidence they have considered and showing how they came to their conclusions. This expectation demonstrates Social Work England’s commitment to a fair and transparent fitness to practise process.

Case examiners have a responsibility to protect their own independence. They should be aware of the possibility that the decision-making process may be influenced by their engagement with other Social Work England employees. They should therefore take all reasonable steps to minimise the likelihood that the independence of their decisions could be questioned.

Case examiners should not engage in any discussion with other Social Work England staff on any aspect of a case. It is acceptable to give general information, such as the likely timescales of a case, but they must not offer any information that could affect the outcome of the case.

Case examiners must immediately report any concerns regarding the integrity of the decision making process to case examiner operations manager and the head of adjudication. This includes situations where the case examiners have, inadvertently or otherwise, been drawn into discussing the merits of a case with another member of Social Work England staff, and they feel that their independence may have been compromised. Reported concerns will be managed in agreement with the case examiner conflicts of interest policy.

If the case examiners have concerns about the case examiner operation manager’s or head of adjudication’s conduct, they must report their concerns to the executive director of fitness to practise.

Case examiners have a duty to help maintain the integrity of the decision making process by sharing their experiences and feedback. This could include, but is not limited to, completing feedback surveys or through discussion in supervision meetings. 

Management of the case examiners

The head of adjudication is responsible for the line management of the team of case examiners and has overall responsibility for the quality of the case examiners’ work.

The case examiner operations manager is responsible for the line management of case examiner support officers and the day to day quality of the case examiners’ work. The case examiner operations manager has overall responsibility for the allocation of cases to the case examiners.

Case examiners may ask for advice on the fitness to practise process (rather than the merits of a case) from the head of adjudications, the case examiner operations manager and, in exceptional circumstances, from a legal advisor. Case examiners can ask for procedural advice before or during their consideration of a case. Once final decisions have been drafted, the case examiners may ask the case examiner operations manager or the head of adjudication whether the regulations, rules and other internal processes have been complied with.

Case examiners cannot ask the head of adjudications or the case examiner operations manager whether they should or should not take a specific course of action. They may only ask whether the specific course of action is permitted under Social Work England’s legislation, and in particular the fitness to practise rules.

Case examiners cannot ask Social Work England employees, including the head of adjudications or the case examiner operations manager, to comment on their decisions or on the evidence available. The case examiner operations manager and the head of adjudications must not offer an opinion to the case examiners on their substantive assessment of a case, the evidence available, or any outcomes they have determined. 

Operational support for the case examiners

The case examiners receive operational support from the case examiner operations team which is managed by the case examiner operations manager. This support might include administrative tasks like navigating Social Work England’s electronic systems. Case examiners will normally use an online system used to access confidential information about a case that a they are assigned to.

The case examiner operations team is responsible for the allocation of cases to a pair of suitable case examiners. The case examiner operations team will allocate cases based on criteria set out in the case examiner guidance.

Case examiners will not have direct contact with the investigators. If the case examiners require additional information for them to make a decision or to clarify any factual points in relation to the evidence, their request must go through the operations team. When they receive a request for information, the case examiner operations team will pass it on to the investigators on the case examiners’ behalf. If the case examiner operations team is concerned that a case examiner’s request, or the investigators’ response, might impact upon the independence of the decision-making process, it will immediately inform the head of adjudications.

Case examiners may request legal or medical advice in relation to a case. If case specific legal or medical advice is required, the case examiners will pause their work on the case and ask the case examiner operations team to communicate their request to the investigators.

Once the case examiners have reached a decision, they will prepare a report outlining their findings and conclusions. The case examiner operations team is then responsible for reviewing the case examiners’ completed report and sending it to all the relevant parties. The case examiner operations team is allowed to correct minor factual, presentational or typographical errors. Any minor corrections must be signed off by the case examiner operations manager and the case examiners who drafted the report.

The case examiner operations team must not correct material flaws in the case examiners’ report or in the decision making process. Similarly, the case examiner operations team must not offer any opinions to the case examiners on their assessment of a case, the evidence available, or what the outcome should be.

Review of conditions or suspensions proposed by the case examiners

The case examiners may decide that it is appropriate to allow a social worker to continue to practise subject to a set of conditions. In such cases any conditions are subject to the agreement of the social worker and cannot be imposed unilaterally. Where this is the case, the case examiners must send a draft set of conditions to the case review team. The case review team is responsible for the monitoring of conditions once they are in place.

Case examiners must also share a draft of their report with the case review team if they have decided to suspend the social worker’s right to practise.

The case review team may recommend amendments to the conditions drafted by the case examiners in the following circumstances:

  • The conditions are not workable
  • The conditions contain typographical, grammatical or formatting issues

The case review team must not amend the case examiners’ draft report. Any recommendations or minor errors that are noticed by the case review team must be sent to the case examiners in writing. The case examiners do not have to accept any recommendations made to them by the case review team.

The case review team must not give any opinions to the case examiners on their assessment of a case, the evidence available, or on their decision to dispose of a case with conditions or to suspend the social worker’s right to practise. If the case examiners have decided to suspend the social worker from practice, the case review team may only comment on the proposed conditions they must meet to return to practice.

A copy of any recommendations made by the case review team must be kept on record.

Quality assurance of case examiner reports

Case examiner reports will normally be subject to four quality assurance checkpoints:

  • i. The quality of draft outcomes will usually be monitored by the case examiner operations team and minor errors may be corrected, with the case examiners’ approval, before the outcome is sent to the relevant parties.
  • ii. The quality of draft conditions will be monitored by the case review team. The case review team may make recommendations to the case examiners if they consider the conditions are not workable, or if the conditions contain typographical, grammatical or formatting issues. The case examiners may, at their discretion, amend the conditions before they are sent to the relevant parties.
  • iii. The quality of final decisions will be monitored on a continuous basis by the case examiner operations manager and the head of adjudications. A sample of cases will be referred to the quality assurance group after the cases have closed. Under no circumstances must any other member of Social Work England staff offer an opinion or feedback on a report before the case has closed.
  • iv. The quality of final decisions and the decision making process will be subject to external review by the Professional Standards Authority. The Professional Standards Authority may provide learning points and feedback upon completion of their review. If the Professional Standards Authority has responded with feedback about a case examiner decision, the relevant case will also be reviewed by the Quality Assurance Group.

Any general feedback or wider learning that is identified through the quality assurance processes will be given to the case examiners in written reports and team meetings.

Case specific feedback will normally only be delivered to case examiners by the head of adjudications, and only when the case has been closed.

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