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Postponements and adjournments

This guidance is for adjudicators, social workers and representatives about which postponements or adjournments might be applied for and the criteria for determining whether to grant the application.

Guidance on postponements and adjournments of fitness to practise hearings

Last updated: 5 December 2019


About this guidance

This guidance is for adjudicators (the panel), social workers and representatives about:

  • which postponements or adjournments might be applied for
  • the criteria for determining whether to grant the application

The guidance applies to all fitness to practise hearings including interim order panels.

Definitions

A postponement is a delay to the proposed hearing date after the notice of hearing has been issued but before the hearing has formally opened. An adjournment is where the hearing has opened and the hearing is delayed, so that the panel must reconvene on another day to continue hearing the case.

General principles

Social Work England’s overarching objective to protect the public (Section 37(1) Children and Social Work Act 2017) is served through the efficient, fair and effective determination of fitness to practise concerns about social workers. This includes concluding cases as quickly as is reasonable.

It’s also in social workers’ interests to have cases determined as quickly as is reasonable to avoid unnecessary stress and disruption. Any decisions to delay hearing dates must balance the interests of the social worker with delivering Social Work England’s overarching objective.

Hearings require a considerable amount of planning, especially where witnesses are to be called. When considering whether to allow a postponement or adjournment the possible future availability of witnesses should be considered.

Applications to postpone or adjourn can be made by the social worker or by the Social Work England case presenter. The same principles and requirements apply to applications made by Social Work England as they do to those made by social workers. 

Postponements

An application to postpone must be made at the earliest opportunity and state clearly the reasons for the application. It must also be accompanied by any relevant evidence. The application should include:

  • The reasons why the original hearing date is no longer practical and when those reasons came to light.
  • The length of the requested postponement and why the applicant expects the time requested to allow them to resolve the issues causing the application.
  • What actions the applicant proposes to take during the period of postponement to prepare their case and an explanation of why these steps could not have been completed earlier.
  • Dates of availability for the party making the application.

Ill health

Applications to postpone on grounds of ill-health should be accompanied by credible medical evidence about the person’s fitness to participate in tribunal proceedings. Evidence provided by registered professionals should be on headed notepaper with a relevant professional registration number.

GP issued Statements of Fitness to Work (“fit notes”) will not usually be sufficient, as a person being unfit to work does not necessarily mean they’re unfit to take part in a hearing. The application should state whether reasonable adjustments, for example a change of hearing venue, might allow the original hearing dates to be kept, or why no reasonable adjustments are possible.

If possible, the application should state how long the person is expected to remain unfit to attend.

How applications to postpone will be determined

The application will be determined by a hearing case manager, adjudication manager or head of adjudication. This will either be a member of Social Work England’s adjudication team, or an adjudicator where the hearing is due to take place before an adjudicator. For more information see rule 25(b) fitness to practise rules 2019.

The hearing case manager, adjudication manager and head of adjudication must act independently of Social Work England’s investigation teams and representatives at hearings. The application will be sent to the other party in the hearing for them to comment on at the earliest available opportunity, whether or not they object to the application. These comments will then be taken into account by the case manager.

Where an application or postponement is made within one working day of the start of the hearing, the case manager may decide that that application should instead be made to the panel. The decision maker may take into account the following non-exhaustive list of factors when determining postponement applications:

  • Does the public interest in ensuring the fitness to practise concerns are properly and fully considered outweigh the public interest and the interests of the social worker in the efficient disposal of the case?
  • Is the application supported, where possible, by credible documentary evidence?
  • Could the applicant have acted earlier to avoid the need for the postponement? For example, could they have obtained the evidence earlier, taking into account the age of the events resulting in the fitness to practise concern? Could they have identified or raised the issue sooner, for example, through case management?
  • Will a postponement lead to a lengthy delay, for example, because of the availability of witnesses?
  • Can any adverse or negative impact of refusing the application be avoided or mitigated? For example, if an interim order hearing goes ahead and an order is imposed, the social worker can apply for early review of the order.
  • Is a delay likely to resolve the issue on which the postponement application is based? For example, if the application to postpone is because the applicant has tried and failed to obtain legal representation, will further delay make any difference? Similarly, if the issue is the availability of a key witness, what is known about when or if they will be available in the future? 

If the application is to postpone a hearing to review a current (substantive or interim) order, the decision maker should take into account the date the current order is due to expire. The review hearing must take place before the expiry of the current order.

The decision maker should also take into account whether or not an interim order is in place. While an interim order may protect the public during the delay, it may also, restrict the social worker’s right to practise before a case is heard or determined.

Interim order and early review hearings

Some cases are referred for a hearing because an immediate possible risk to public safety has been identified. In cases like this, there is a strong need to hear the case as soon as is reasonably practical to uphold the overarching objective to protect the public.

While each situation must be judged on its merits, this need is likely to carry significant weight when deciding whether to grant postponements of this type of hearing. Therefore, most applications for postponement or adjournment of an interim order hearing will only be considered by a panel of adjudicators on the scheduled day of the hearing unless there is evidence that doing so would create an injustice.

Interim order hearings do not make findings of fact. The panel is instead tasked with deciding whether, on the information so far available, there may be a risk to the protection of the public that requires an interim order. Issues about obtaining evidence, for example, are usually less relevant to the question of postponement of an interim order hearing than at fitness to practise hearings.

As noted above, social workers can apply for early review of an interim order. This may be relevant to the balancing exercise between risk to public safety and the social worker’s interests.

Applications to postpone from Social Work England’s adjudication team

In exceptional circumstances, the adjudication team may need to apply for postponement because of practical difficulties. This might be the availability of panel members to hear the case, for example. In these cases, the adjudicators rather than a member of the adjudications team will consider the postponement request.

The adjudicators may have little choice in their decision because the practical difficulty cannot be overcome quickly. The parties should be given details of the difficulty, and of what steps will be taken to avoid or mitigate the risks of further postponements

Adjournments

A panel may adjourn a hearing of its own accord or in response to an application from either party. The panel should seek advice from the legal assessor before granting an adjournment. However, examples of situations where an adjournment is sought might include:

  • Unforeseen circumstances at the start of the hearing, such as a key witness being unwell or a panellist having a previously unknown conflict of interest.
  • A direction by the panel to carry out further investigations. To deliver the overarching objective to protect the public, panels may require that further information is sought that may be relevant in assessing the social worker’s fitness to practise.
  • A need to secure the attendance of a key witness. This could be because they failed to appear, for example.
  • The hearing will run out of time. Detailed hearings timetables are intended to keep adjournments due to lack of time to a minimum and panels should keep to the timetable as far as it is fair and practical to do so. However, sometimes hearings will run out of time despite the best efforts of all involved.

Non-attendance of the social worker

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