Remote hearings protocol
This guidance outlines our approach to remote fitness to practise hearings.
Remote hearings protocol
Published: 16 December 2022
- About this guidance
- Our objectives as the regulator
- Types of fitness to practise hearings
- How we decide the hearing format
- Remote hearings
- Hybrid hearings
- Other types of hearing
- Further information
About this guidance
This document is for:
- legal advisers
- social workers and their representatives
- Social Work England’s external legal provider
- Social Work England’s hearings team
This guidance outlines:
- what factors to consider when deciding on hearing format (either in-person, remote or hybrid)
- how we decide on the format of a hearing
- how we carry out remote hearings
- other relevant information about the hearing process
Reference to ‘the parties’ in this guidance includes (all of the following):
- the social worker
- the social worker’s representative
- Social Work England
Reference to ‘participants’ in this guidance includes (all of the following):
- the adjudicators
- legal adviser
- the parties (see above)
- any witnesses
- Social Work England’s hearings team
Separate guidance on how to use video conferencing software is provided to hearing participants directly.
Read more about the fitness to practise process including (both of the following):
- how we assess and progress concerns
- further information about the adjudication and hearing process
The process for deciding the format of a hearing as outlined in this policy is reserved to final fitness to practise hearings only. That said, the factors in assessing the appropriateness of any remote hearing are the same. Further information about interim order hearings and final order review hearings is set out at the end of this policy.
Our objectives as the regulator
Our overarching objective is set out in the Children and Social Work Act 2017:
- to protect, promote and maintain the health, safety and well-being of the public
- to promote and maintain public confidence in social workers in England
- to promote and maintain proper professional standards for social workers in England
We must also make sure that our fitness to practise processes (including investigations and adjudications, and any necessary sanctions) are delivered within a reasonable timeframe. Delays in proceedings can adversely affect (both of the following):
- our overarching objective of public protection
- anyone involved in the fitness to practise proceeding (such as the social worker and any witnesses)
Types of fitness to practise hearings
We can hold hearings in the following ways:
- in-person (where all participants physically attend a hearing in our hearing suite in Sheffield)
- remotely (where all participants attend via an online video conferencing platform)
- in a hybrid way (where some of the participants attend in-person while others attend by video conference)
Having a variety of different hearing formats means that everyone who needs to attend has fair opportunity to do so, accommodating all participants’ personal circumstances wherever possible.
How we decide the hearing format
The overarching considerations when deciding hearing format include the following questions:
- Can fairness and justice be achieved?
- Are there sufficient safeguards to ensure the integrity of the process and that inappropriate breaches of privacy can be avoided?
- Will the process protect the safety and wellbeing of the participants in accordance with any government guidance in place at the time?
- Can any Equality Act 2010 considerations be adequately provided for those with protected characteristics?
Key factors to consider
Whilst our starting position will be that hearings are conducted remotely, we will identify cases where a remote hearing would not be suitable at the earliest opportunity. We recognise that the majority of social workers do not have representation and therefore, may be less aware of when a remote hearing may not be suitable.
The social worker will be able to share their views on the format of the hearing using the case management questionnaire at the start of the hearing case management process. As part of the questionnaire, they may object to a remote hearing taking place.
If a social worker would like to object to a remote hearing, they should provide as much information about the following with reference to the factors (all of the below):
- their situation
- their needs
- why a remote hearing would not be suitable
Social Work England’s external legal provider will review the case management questionnaire and respond to the social worker in writing setting out our position. Where parties agree, the hearings case manager will notify the parties accordingly and proceed with planning the hearing.
The circumstances of any witnesses required to attend the hearing will also be taken into consideration and accommodated wherever possible.
Key factors to consider when applying the overarching considerations may include (but are not limited to):
1. Whether the social worker and other participants have sufficient (any of the following):
- access to technology
- understanding of the technology
- access to an appropriate environment to enable them to take part effectively in a remote hearing including access to any advice
Depending on the circumstances, we may be able to make provision for social workers or witnesses to participate in the hearing by (any of the following):
- going to our offices
- going to our legal provider’s offices to participate in a hearing
- attend by other means such as by phone
If use of technology is an issue, we can also provide support with test calls (noted below). If a social worker does not have access to a device, the internet or a private space in which to attend the hearing, that will weigh in favour of the hearing being held as a hybrid where the social worker can attend in-person.
2. Whether there is reason to believe that there are risks of a breach of privacy that Social Work England cannot overcome.
For example, real concerns that someone observing the hearing may try to record it despite it being clear that recording is strictly prohibited.
3. Any features of the case that make it particularly difficult for it to be held remotely.
For example, difficulties in presenting evidence that cannot be accommodated at a remote hearing such as physical evidence needing to be inspected by the adjudicators and/or participants in-person.
4. Evidence suggesting that the integrity or fairness of the hearing may be compromised by a remote hearing.
For example, real concerns that someone giving evidence remotely may be being coached (being told what to say by someone else) despite it being clear that all witnesses are required to give their own evidence.
5. The impact of any disabilities or other vulnerability of any of the participants.
For example, if the social worker has a physical or mental health condition that is adversely impacted by attending the hearing in a certain format and reasonable adjustments cannot adequately address the concern.
6. The public interest in the quick and efficient disposal of cases.
For example, requiring an in-person hearing may mean that participants find it harder to be available or may not be able to travel or stay away from home. This may delay necessary action to protect the public or return social workers to practice and may impact on the wellbeing of those taking part.
7. The health of participants and whether they fall within the groups likely to be at high risk of serious adverse effects if they contract Covid-19 or other infectious diseases.
For example, we cannot rule out the possibility that participants may be required to self-isolate or shield, whether as a result of public health guidance/rules or due to health concerns. While we now live with Covid-19, those who are extremely clinically vulnerable may still be limiting social contact and travel. We also need to bear in mind that other epidemics or pandemics may occur in the future.
8. To make sure that the hearing complies with government guidance for the safety of all involved.
For example, if a local or national lockdown is in effect then a remote hearing will be the only available option unless the hearing is delayed.
9. Any other matters that may affect the smooth running of the hearing.
Apart from factor one (set out above), we do not consider that any single factor has greater weight than the others. Different conditions will apply in individual cases and must be considered accordingly.
What happens if there is a disagreement about the hearing format
We aim for all parties involved to agree on the format of a hearing. However, if there is a disagreement, the final decision will be made by the adjudicators at a case management meeting taking into account the key considerations and factors above. Parties will have the opportunity to raise their concerns and to present information to support them by attending the case management meeting or providing written submissions.
At the case management meeting, the adjudicators should first consider if a hybrid hearing would address the concerns raised before they consider if an in-person hearing is necessary. For example, if the social worker objects to a remote hearing because they consider they can only give their evidence in-person, the concerns raised by the social worker may be addressed by only the social worker attending in-person rather than all hearing participants.
Additionally, the adjudicators should also consider whether a blended approach could resolve the particular concern raised. A blended approach would be using a number of different formats over the course of a hearing. For example, 3 days of the hearing are held as a hybrid and 3 days of the hearing are held remotely.
After the hearing format has been agreed
After a case management meeting, the adjudicator’s directions in relation to hearing format should be clear as to which participants will be attending in which format and on which days. Social Work England’s advocate will attend the hearing remotely unless otherwise directed by the adjudicators.
We know that participant circumstances may change, as can the external environment or government guidance, so any decision about the hearing format will be kept under review. Participants should notify the hearings case manager at the earliest opportunity of any relevant changes to their circumstances (except for changes to government guidance). The adjudicators may have to issue further directions if the hearing format is no longer appropriate or workable due to changed circumstances.
The below information sets out (all of the following):
- how remote hearings are organised
- what happens during the hearing
- any other relevant information
Please note that this is only a guide. This information does not constitute a direction to the adjudicators to take a particular course of action when hearing cases. The adjudicators have the power to regulate their own proceedings.
Before the remote hearing
Role of the hearings team
The hearings team is made up of (all of the following):
- hearings case managers
- hearings officers
- hearings support officers
The hearings officer is responsible for the smooth running of the hearing. Together with the hearings support officer, they will update participants about a number of things, including:
- start and finish times
- when to return from breaks
- when a hearing session is private
For these reasons, social workers must make sure the hearings officer has their up-to-date contact details.
Before and during the hearing, they will also:
- create the virtual meeting rooms and control access to them
- provide additional support to vulnerable parties
- make sure that special measures and adjustments are implemented
The hearings case manager:
- facilitates the scheduling of the hearing
- monitors case management directions and deadlines
- coordinates disclosure and paperwork
- supports all parties with queries about the hearing
Documents and bundles
Documents and bundles will be shared with the relevant parties electronically via secure methods before the hearing. We recommend that you always have these to hand during the hearing.
If a party needs to provide additional documents on the day of the hearing, they must send them electronically to the other party and the hearings officer. If required, the hearings officer can then circulate them securely to the adjudicators, legal adviser and any other relevant party.
On the first day of the hearing the chair or legal adviser will check that all parties have the correct bundles with the same page numbering.
We use Microsoft Teams for remote hearings by video conference. Telephone conferencing facilities are also available via Microsoft Teams if a participant does not have access to a device with a camera.
Microsoft Teams has several accessibility features such as (all of the following):
- closed captioning
- dark, light and high contrast themes
- compatibility with screen readers
The hearings team can help participants if they need assistance with any accessibility features.
Test calls for participants can be arranged with the hearings support officer before the hearing to better understand Microsoft Teams.
Remote hearings will usually be scheduled from 9.30am to 5pm. This provides the adjudicators and parties the flexibility to manage the hearing day according to individual circumstances.
Occasionally, these times may be adjusted due to the needs of any party at the direction of the chair. The chair will make sure there are sufficient breaks and that comfort and wellbeing is monitored throughout the hearing, particularly in relation to those giving evidence.
Support and representation
A social worker is permitted to have someone with them during the hearing. This person could be formally representing them (speaking on their behalf) or there as a form of practical or emotional support (with the social worker remaining self-represented).
A person offering practical support is referred to as a McKenzie friend. Alternatively, someone might be there to simply offer emotional support. These forms of support might be particularly helpful for self-represented social workers. The social worker should remember that if they choose to have someone with them, that person will hear what is said at the hearing.
The social worker may also choose to be formally represented by (any of the following):
- a legally qualified person
- a representative from a professional organisation of which they are a member
- a member of the social worker’s family
- another suitable person (at the discretion of the regulator or adjudicators)
If the social worker is represented or wishes to have someone with them at the hearing, they should notify the hearings team as soon as possible by emailing [email protected].
If any participant in the hearing requires any reasonable adjustments due to disability or any other need which will support them taking part in the hearing, they should contact the hearings support officer. It’s important that we know as soon as possible so that arrangements can be made in advance.
For further information or support, please contact [email protected].
During the remote hearing
Record of the hearing
The hearings officer will formally record the hearing using Microsoft Teams.
On occasion, there may be a separate person (a logger) who takes a recording of the hearing. A verbatim written note of proceedings can then be produced at our request. This is called a transcript.
The social worker, Social Work England or the person who raised the concern (in the case of a public hearing) are entitled to a copy of the transcript upon request. Our privacy notice covers use, access and storage of recordings and transcripts of hearings.
No other participant is permitted to record any part of the hearing via any means, although handwritten or typed notes are acceptable for personal use. Any notes must not be distributed or shared with anyone else, including on social media.
Behaviour during the hearing
The chair will make sure that parties are adequately introduced and that everyone in the virtual room has been identified.
A remote hearing is no less formal than an in-person hearing. Everyone involved in a hearing should make sure that communication, presentation and appearance is just as it would be at an in-person hearing.
Parties are expected to always have their cameras on (unless directed otherwise) but they should mute their microphone while not speaking to limit background noise.
We would recommend that hearing participants use a headset or headphones with a microphone as this can further limit background noise. However, it’s not essential if one is not available.
Parties should not talk over each other and should speak when invited to do so by the adjudicators.
If a social worker’s representative or Social Work England’s advocate needs to consult with those instructing them, the chair should allow appropriate breaks to facilitate this.
Parties can seek the attention of the chair by using the ‘raise your hand’ function on Microsoft Teams. This will indicate to the adjudicators and hearings officer that someone wishes to speak.
The hearings team will arrange test calls with witnesses in advance of the hearing to make the hearing run as smoothly as possible.
If the witness wishes to take a religious oath before giving their evidence, they will need the relevant holy book with them. Otherwise, the witness will be asked to make an affirmation.
The hearings team will provide witnesses with a link to the waiting area for the main hearing room. This link will allow them to join the hearing at the designated time. Access to the main hearing room will be controlled by the hearings officer. A witness will not be permitted to observe the public hearing until after they have given their evidence. This is to make sure their evidence is not influenced or tainted.
Once admitted to the hearing room, the chair will ask witnesses whether anyone is physically with them in the room before they give their evidence so that any concerns can be explored. This is to maintain the integrity of witness evidence.
The chair will be responsible for making sure adequate breaks are given. All witnesses will be given the opportunity for regular breaks to allow them to give their best evidence.
Similarly to in-person hearings, witnesses attending remotely must not discuss the case or their evidence with anyone while under oath or affirmation.
If a witness requires any reasonable adjustments due to disability or any other need that will support them to take part and give their best evidence, they should contact the hearings support officer before the hearing.
Microsoft Teams allows participants to share their screens. However, this can lead to incorrect information being shared by accident. This information could breach a participant’s or someone else’s privacy.
Participants must only share their screen with the agreement of the chair and having taken care to mitigate any potential data security risks.
Final hearings take place in public  but the regulator or adjudicators may, where appropriate, decide to hear some, or all, of a hearing in private session.
A hearing, or part of it, will be heard in private where proceedings relate to the making or reviewing of an interim order, or the physical or mental health of the social worker .
Additionally, the regulator or the adjudicators may decide to hold part or all of the hearing in private if they consider it would be appropriate regarding (either of the following):
- the vulnerability, interest or welfare of any participants in the hearing
- the public interest, including the effective pursuit of the regulator’s overarching objective of public protection 
There will also be times during the hearing where the adjudicators need to deliberate in private without the parties present, but usually with the attendance of the legal adviser. They can do this at any time.
Apart from a hearing going into private, any person can also be excluded from any hearing if their presence or conduct (in the regulator or the adjudicator’s opinion) is likely to disrupt the orderly conduct of the hearing.
[note 1] Rule 37 of Social Work England’s Fitness to Practise Rules 2019 (as amended)
[note 2] Rule 38(a) of Social Work England’s Fitness to Practise Rules 2019 (as amended)
[note 3] Rule 38(b) of Social Work England’s Fitness to Practise Rules 2019 (as amended)
Observing a hearing remotely
All hearings are listed on our website. If a member of the public wishes to attend, they can make a request by emailing [email protected].
Observers will be sent an agreement form to confirm their agreement to several rules of admittance.
It is critical that there must be absolutely no recording of a hearing of any kind by those attending. This includes (but is not limited to the following):
- recording audio
- recording video
- taking screenshots
- taking photos of the screen on a second device
Observers must also confirm they will not share any information relating to the hearing with the public including on social media.
Once the agreement form has been returned to the hearings team and the observer confirms that they agree to the rules of admittance, a link for the main virtual hearing room will be shared with them. The link must not be shared with anyone else.
Observers should have their camera and audio turned off unless requested to do otherwise by the chair. Failure to do so may result in an observer being removed from the remote hearing.
Participants of the hearing will be notified of observers before the start of the hearing. The chair will also reiterate the rules of admittance at the start of the hearing. Observers will be removed from the remote hearing if they breach these rules.
Access to the main virtual hearing room will be controlled by the hearings officer. Anyone attempting to access this room who has not provided a confirmation that they agree to the rules of admittance will be removed from the virtual lobby.
There may be times where certain information needs to be heard in private session (only with the parties, the adjudicators, the legal adviser and members of the Social Work England hearings staff in attendance). Any observers will be required to exit the remote hearing at that time but will be permitted to re-join once the hearing resumes in public session.
Interim order hearings are always held in private. Public access to these types of hearings is therefore prohibited.
Despite thorough preparation for a hearing, sometimes technical issues arise on the day that cannot be avoided. This can slow or pause proceedings which can be disruptive. In these cases we ask that all participants and observers have patience.
The hearings officer will provide the parties, witnesses and observers with email and telephone contact details in case of technical issues. The participants must make sure they have provided the hearings officer or hearings support officer with an up-to-date telephone number and email address before the hearing so that they can be contacted in the event of a technical difficulty.
The adjudicators, legal adviser and the hearings officer will actively monitor any technical issues that may occur during the hearing.
If any participant experiences technical issues during the hearing, this must be raised with the chair as soon as possible. This includes poor connectivity issues that affect anyone’s ability to hear or see the hearing. Proceedings should be halted until technical issues have been resolved or, as a last resort, an alternative way to proceed is identified.
This is to make sure that all parties have fair access to proceedings and vital information or evidence is not misheard or missed.
As with any participants, observers who are unable to hear or see proceedings should raise this with the hearings officer as soon as possible. This will make sure that public access to the hearing is maintained.
Remote participants will attend hybrid hearings in the same way as noted above (using Microsoft Teams).
For parties that are attending the hearing in-person from our Sheffield hearing suites, the physical hearing room will be added to the Microsoft Teams hearing. This means that all attendees can be seen and heard. All hearing rooms have a large television screen and a high-quality camera and microphone system so that all participants will be able to clearly see and hear each other.
Other types of hearing
We will automatically schedule the following hearings as remote hearings (all of the following):
- interim order application hearings
- interim order review hearings
- final order review hearings
- restoration hearings
- registration appeal hearings
If a social worker or Social Work England are concerned that a remote hearing may not be appropriate, they should raise this with the hearings team at the earliest opportunity. They will need to provide reasons as to why a remote hearing is not appropriate based on the factors set out above (see section ‘Key factors to consider’).
The reasons given will be shared with the other party for their comment and a decision about the most appropriate format will be made by the hearings team, taking into account the same factors and overarching considerations set out above.
First published: 16 December 2022