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Self-represented social workers at hearings

This guidance is primarily for adjudicators (the panel) and legal assessors in managing hearings where the social worker is representing themselves.

Self-represented social workers at fitness to practise panel hearings

Last updated: 5 December 2019

About this guidance

This guidance is primarily for adjudicators (the panel) and legal assessors in managing hearings where the social worker is representing themselves. It may also help unrepresented social workers to understand what to expect at hearings.

General principles

During fitness to practice hearings, the panelmust conduct its proceedings fairly. They must balance the need to meet the public interest of determining issues of a social worker’s fitness to practise as efficiently as possible with making sure all relevant evidence is fully presented and each party has a reasonable opportunity to present their case in full.

A social worker may choose whether to be represented at the hearing or to present their own case. It’s likely to be in the social worker’s best interests to be represented. This is because an experienced representative will understand the legal procedures the hearing must follow and the relevant case law that impacts on these procedures. They will also understand how the panel will make decisions on the issues and what evidence will help them reach a fair and proportionate decision.

If a social worker is self-represented, the panel should make sure the social worker has the opportunity to put forward all evidence and submissions that the panel may find helpful when making its determinations. However, the panel must be careful not to lead the evidence or submissions. The responsibility for presenting their case rests entirely with the social worker.

The panel is entitled to expect the case presenter for Social Work England to draw attention to any evidence in the case brought by Social Work England that helps the social worker’s defence. For example, the case presenter for Social Work England should reference any inconsistencies in the evidence of their witnesses. But it’s not Social Work England’s responsibility to build a self-represented social worker’s defence for them.

In particular, social workers are personally responsible for providing evidence that supports any mitigation insight or remediation the social worker has in relation to the allegation.

The panel must make sure a self-represented social worker is not unfairly disadvantaged through lack of understanding of the procedure a hearing must follow. But equally, any allowances the panel may make for the social worker’s lack of representation should not be at the expense of the efficient management of the hearing, in the public interest.

Supporting the social worker and progressing the hearing

Panels should make sure that any social worker appearing at a hearing knows who the panel is, the panel’s function and the identity and role of others in the room (excluding any observers in the public gallery) and how the hearing will progress. Panels should also check whether the social worker has any special requirements or reasonable adjustments not already notified through case management.

These are common courtesies to help put social workers at ease in a potentially daunting situation, regardless of whether or not they’re represented. The following points may be helpful for panels and legal assessors to make sure a self-represented social worker can fully engage with the hearing while making sure it proceeds fairly and efficiently:

At the start of the hearing, check whether the social worker engaged with pre-hearing case management. If so, have any directions been complied with? In particular, has the social worker received full disclosure of Social Work England’s evidence bundle and been given reasonable opportunity to consider its contents? If necessary, allow time for the social worker to review the evidence bundle.

If the social worker did not engage in pre-hearing case management, have they seen the proposed hearing timetable? Does the social worker have any specific reason to query the timetable? (The timetable will normally have taken into account that the social worker is self-represented.)

Explain the order of proceedings in general terms: determination on disputed facts, then impairment findings and sanction if relevant. Social Work England putting its case first at each stage and the social worker then responding.

Check that the social worker understands what’s happening at each stage, especially that they know when they will have the opportunity to input to the proceedings. For example, check they know when they will be able to ask questions of witnesses, or make submissions in response to Social Work England’s case.

If it’s necessary to direct the social worker about how they are conducting their case, explain clearly the reasons for the direction and check the social worker has understood them. This may be appropriate if, for example, a question they’ve asked of a witness is not relevant to the case, or is not one the witness can reasonably answer. But be careful not to allow a self-represented social worker more leeway in questioning witnesses than would be given to a representative. Witnesses are entitled to expect protection from unreasonable, irrelevant or confrontational questioning regardless of the representation arrangements.

Do not let hearing sessions go on for an excessive length of time. Consider offering breaks at key points, for example. This may be appropriate to allow the social worker to reflect on what questions to ask a Social Work England witness or to prepare their closing submissions at the end of each stage. The hearings timetable should’ve allowed extra time to allow the self-represented social worker time to digest the evidence and submissions as the case progresses and to prepare their responses.

Be clear at all times about the importance of keeping to the hearings timetable. If possible, agree with both parties at the start of each day, or even the start of each session, about what’s expected to happen and how far the case is expected to progress in that day or session. Get the Social Work England representative and the social worker to indicate, as the hearing proceeds, how long they expect to be with each witness and how long they need for each set of submissions.

Please see separate guidance about procedures for cross-examination of witnesses in cases of a sexual nature.

A self-represented social worker may benefit from guidance outside the hearing room about the panel’s procedures from the legal assessor or legally qualified chair. Such guidance must only be given in the presence of the Social Work England representative and the hearings officer (or hearing support officer). This is so that there can be no doubt about what guidance has been offered.

It may be appropriate to confirm, on the public record, the nature of any guidance given and to ask the parties to confirm the accuracy of this record. This guidance cannot extend to what specific evidence the social worker might produce or the content of what submissions they might make.

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