This guidance is for Social Work England triage officers to make decisions under the law as set out in The Social Worker Regulations 2018 and the Social Work England (fitness to practise) rules.
Last updated: 16 December 2022
- About this guidance
- What is fitness to practise?
- Types of fitness to practise impairment
- The pre-triage test
- The triage test
- Applying the rule 3 criteria
- Further enquiries and deferring decisions
- Previous complainant history
- Events outside the UK or when the social worker was not registered
- The decision and its reasoning
- Social workers with current open cases
- Voluntary removal applications
About this guidance
When a fitness to practise concern is raised to us, the first thing we will do is triage the concern. This guidance will cover (all of the following):
- What is triage?
- What is fitness to practise?
- types of fitness to practise impairments
It will also cover the triage process:
- the pre-triage test: Does the concern raised falls within our fitness to practise remit?
- the triage test: Are there reasonable grounds for investigating whether the social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired?
- making further enquiries or a decision
Who this guidance is for
This guidance is primarily for Social Work England triage officers.
Triage officers are trained and authorised to make decisions under the law as set out in The Social Workers Regulations 2018 (as amended) (‘the regulations’) and the Social Work England (fitness to practise) rules (‘the rules’).
This guidance may also be useful for:
- social workers
- employers of social workers
- wider Social Work England staff
- people with lived experience of social work
- the public
How to use this guidance when assessing fitness to practise
- The guidance is not exhaustive and triage officers must consider each case on its individual merits.
- The triage officer must lean in favour of opening an investigation unless there are no reasonable grounds to investigate impairment.
- There is further guidance about thresholds for impaired fitness to practise in the Types of impairment section of the guidance.
What is triage?
At the triage stage, we must decide whether there are reasonable grounds for investigating whether the fitness to practise of a registered social worker is impaired in accordance with schedule 2 paragraph 1(1) of the regulations.
Rule 3 of the rules sets out the criteria that the triage officers must apply to decide whether there are reasonable grounds for investigating whether a social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired. This guidance explains how the triage officers should apply these criteria.
What is fitness to practise?
There is no agreed legal definition for fitness to practise, but it’s generally understood to mean: the current suitability of the social worker to hold registration and practise without restriction.
Fitness to practise is about protecting the public and the wider public interest in social work now and in the future. A question about fitness to practise can arise from any situation, whether in the course of a social worker’s professional work or from their personal conduct.
It is not about apportioning blame or punishment for past mistakes. This means a concern might raise questions about a social worker’s actions in the past, but this might not pass the triage test because of what the social worker has done since then to regain their fitness to practise. When we are assessing fitness to practise, we must assess both the position today and in the future. This position may be different from what it was when the event or events occurred that prompted the concern to be raised.
When is a social worker's fitness to practise considered impaired?
A social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired if (any of the following apply):
- they pose a risk to public safety if they continue to practise without restriction
- their conduct or performance undermines public confidence in social workers in England
- what they have done makes it necessary to send a public signal about the standards expected of social workers
This reflects Social Work England’s overarching objectives which are (all of the following):
- to protect, promote and maintain the health, safety and wellbeing of the public
- to promote and maintain confidence in social workers in England
- to promote and maintain proper professional standards for social workers in England
Types of fitness to practise impairment
Fitness to practise can be impaired under one or more of eight types of impairment. When assessing whether a question of impairment arises, the triage officer should first identify the relevant type of impairment as part of the pre-triage test (discussed in the next section of this guidance).
The eight types of impairment are:
- lack of competence or capability
- a conviction or caution in the United Kingdom for a criminal offence
- a criminal conviction elsewhere that would be a criminal offence if committed in England or Wales
- adverse physical or mental health
- a determination by another regulatory body  that the social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired
- being included in the Disclosure and Barring Service barred list  or the Scottish Ministers’ children’s or adults’ lists 
- not having the necessary knowledge of English
Where an alleged matter occurred outside the United Kingdom or occurred at a time when the social worker was not registered as a social worker, there will only grounds to consider it if it is the public interest to do so. 
If the concern relates to a person who is not currently registered, there are no powers under fitness to practise to investigate further. However, depending on the seriousness of the concern, the triage officer might ask the referrer to provide as much detail as possible so that this can be considered if the person applies for registration in the future.
We will now go into more detail about each type of impairment.
[note 1] Only determinations of a regulatory body which authorises a person to practise a health or social care profession which is regulated under any enactment in the UK or elsewhere can be relied upon here
[note 2] Within the meaning given in section 60(1) of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 or article 2(2A) of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007
[note 3] Within the meaning given in section 1(1) of the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007
[note 4] Regulation 25(2) of The Social Workers Regulations 2018 (as amended)
To reach the threshold of impairment, the alleged misconduct must be serious enough to represent a risk to the public or to the wider public interest of promoting and maintaining confidence in, and the professional standards for, social workers in England.
What is misconduct?
Misconduct may be directly or indirectly connected with the social worker’s professional practice. The social worker’s conduct in their private life may also be professional misconduct if the concerns raise fundamental questions about their trustworthiness as a registered professional. Examples of misconduct include dishonesty or sexually motivated misconduct.
Misconduct should not be confused with lack of competence or capability. A concern arising during the course of professional work could be an example of misconduct, but this must be based on more than that the quality of work was sub-standard. For example, a social worker who correctly identifies a service user’s needs but does not know what action to take next may lack competence, but a social worker who pursues a course of action without first trying to identify the service user’s needs may be committing misconduct.
This is also relevant for professional misjudgements with very serious consequences. The degree of seriousness cannot turn a performance case into one of misconduct.
The triage officer should try to identify the features of a concern that characterise it as misconduct as far as possible.
Lack of competence or capability
Impairment due to lack of competence or capability must be evidenced by a ‘fair sample’ of the social worker’s work. There is no set definition of ‘fair sample’, but it suggests a sample sufficient enough to show the social worker’s usual standard of work. A single episode of incompetence would not normally amount to impairment unless it was exceptionally serious.
Concerns based on an isolated incident
At the triage stage, we may not know if there is a wider pattern of competence or capability issues. This will likely be the case if the concern is raised by a member of the public about a self-contained set of events.
In this instance, the triage officer must assess whether the concern in isolation is serious enough to raise a question about the social worker’s overall competence. If the concern in isolation is not so serious, then the officer should refer to our professional standards and assess (both of the following):
- whether the concern could become serious if there was a further similar incident
- the likelihood of such repetition
If the matter could not become serious even if there was a further similar incident, then this suggests the threshold for an investigation into lack of competence or capability is not met.
Concerns raised based on a pattern of behaviour
Referrals from employers are far more likely to give an overview of the social worker’s general standard of recent competence and capability. This is more likely to point towards possible impairment on the grounds of lack of capability or competence.
Conviction or caution in the United Kingdom for a criminal offence, or for an offence elsewhere that would be a criminal offence if committed in England or Wales
If a social worker receives a conviction or caution for a criminal offence, this provides reasonable grounds for investigating their fitness to practise. The only action the triage officer must take is to confirm the identity of the social worker who is said to be the subject of the conviction or caution.
In theory, we may only be notified about a caution or conviction a while after the event, raising a question about whether it’s recent enough to call into question current fitness to practise. However, social workers have a duty to notify us if they are the subject of a caution or conviction. Therefore, if we were not previously aware of the caution or conviction, this may raise a separate misconduct concern.
Pending or proposed appeals against conviction are not grounds to defer opening an investigation.
While the triage officer must assess each case on its merits, closure of caution and convictions at triage is very rare. If a triage officer chooses to close a caution or conviction at triage, they must explain the reasons fully in their decision.
Adverse physical or mental health
Having a health condition alone does not impair a social worker’s fitness to practise. The key question is whether the social worker (both):
- is managing their health condition
- has sufficient insight to limit their practice as necessary to protect the public when they are ill
We may need to explore this through investigation but if the social worker is complying with treatment and is restricting their practice appropriately then it is unlikely that an investigation into their fitness to practise is needed.
Mental health conditions
Some mental health conditions are recurring and episodic. The key question is whether the social worker is capable of recognising and acting on an onset of a new episode.
It may be necessary to open an investigation if (either of the following apply):
- the social worker’s ability to recognise and act on this has not yet been tested
- the social worker has previously failed to recognise and act in response to the onset of an episode
An investigation may be necessary if either of the above criteria apply, even if the social worker’s health condition is currently in remission.
Seeking expert advice
The triage officer may well need to seek expert advice about the nature of the condition, including whether it is episodic and the risk to the public if the condition is not managed appropriately.
If in doubt
If in doubt, the triage officer should err on the side of public protection but should also bear in mind that investigations cause social workers stress and can make health concerns worse. Investigations into adverse health are not required or in the public interest if the health condition is being managed safely and appropriately.
You can read more about health concerns in our health concerns guidance.
A determination by a regulatory body to the effect that a person’s fitness to practise is impaired
This is most likely to arise where the social worker holds registration with another UK social work regulator or equivalent overseas body.
The finding by the body must make some reference to impairment or equivalent. Where such a finding is made, then as with convictions and cautions, the threshold for investigation is very likely to be met and the question for the triage officer is primarily about confirming the identity of the social worker.
Being included by the Disclosure and Barring Service in a barred list or by the Scottish Ministers in the children’s list or the adults’ list
A person will be on such a list because of serious concerns. Such cases will be sufficiently serious to amount to reasonable grounds for investigation of the social worker’s fitness to practise.
Not having the necessary knowledge of English
As the regulator in England, we are allowed to require registered social workers to undergo an English language assessment test. We are only allowed to do this, however, if we have received evidence of a concern that justifies opening a fitness to practise investigation. This means that the triage officer must make a decision based on objective evidence that a social worker’s knowledge of English might fall below the required standard.
Triage officers should carefully assess the objective evidence in support of the allegation.
For example, evidence of the social worker’s written English may justify further investigation but a concern that the social worker’s verbal communication was sometimes hard to follow might not unless there is clear evidence of how this had adversely affected the social worker’s professional performance.
The triage officer should check whether we hold any recent evidence of an English language assessment test for the social worker in question. For example, if the social worker has passed such a test within the previous 12 months, perhaps at the point of registration, this may be strong evidence against the need to open an investigation into current knowledge of English.
The pre-triage test
When we receive a concern, we must first establish if it falls within our fitness to practise remit. This is called the pre-triage test.
A concern will fall within our remit if it relates to a social worker in England and (all of the following apply):
- it relates to a statutory ground of impairment (see the previous section of this guidance)
- it does not amount to registration fraud
- there is no duplicate fitness to practise case
- it does not relate to a conviction for a ‘listed offence’
If the concern does fall within the remit of fitness to practise, we will then move on to apply the triage test.
If a concern does not relate to a social worker in England
If the concern does not relate to a social worker in England, we will consider whether it raises a protection of title issue. This is because only those registered with Social Work England can use the title ‘social worker’. If we decide that the case does raise a protection of title issue, the matter will be referred to our registration and advice team for action. If the subject of the referral is registered with another regulator, the matter will be referred to the appropriate body for consideration.
If a concern involves suspected registration fraud
If the triage officer decides that the concern amounts to registration fraud, the matter will be referred to our registration department who will take the appropriate action.
If we receive a duplicate concern
If we receive a duplicate concern, we will not open a new fitness to practise case. The concern will be added to the existing case. If the existing case has been closed, we will not reopen it unless we’ve received significant new information. We cannot investigate the same concern more than once without significant new information.
If a concern involves a conviction for a 'listed offence'
Under regulation 26 of the regulations, we can automatically remove any social worker who has been convicted of a ‘listed offence’ (set out in schedule 3 of the regulations) from the register. If we are notified that a social worker has been convicted of a listed offence, the matter will be referred for automatic removal rather than progressing through the standard fitness to practise process.
If a social worker has been convicted of a listed offence but has not been removed from the register under regulation 26(5), schedule 2, paragraph 1(2) of the regulations sets out that there are reasonable grounds for investigating whether that social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired. In these cases, there is no requirement to apply the triage test outlined below.
If a concern involves a conviction for a 'non-listed offence'
If a social worker has been convicted of an offence (other than a listed offence) for which a custodial sentence has been imposed, schedule 2, paragraph 1(2) of the regulations sets out that there are reasonable grounds for investigating whether that social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired. In these cases, there is no requirement to apply the triage test outlined below.
The triage test
Are there reasonable grounds for investigating whether the social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired?
In applying this test, the triage officer must determine (both of the following):
- whether there are reasonable grounds to investigate the concerns
- whether the concern suggests current impairment
The fitness to practise rules set out criteria that the triage officer must apply when they are assessing whether there are reasonable grounds to investigate a social worker’s fitness to practise.
The triage officer must consider each criterion individually and collectively. Often, the criteria will overlap. For example, the seriousness of a concern may be affected by whether the social worker has subsequently fully remediated.
Types of impairment that almost always require an investigation
In some types of impairment, the fact of a finding by another body is almost certainly sufficient to require an investigation on grounds of seriousness, usually including the public interest.
These types of impairment are:
- convictions and cautions in the UK
- convictions elsewhere that if committed in England and Wales would be criminal offences
- determinations of impaired fitness to practise by other bodies
- inclusion in a barred list [categories c, d, f and g]
The key question at triage is likely to be to confirm the identity of the social worker who has been subject to another body’s finding. In these cases, the triage officer will likely only need to apply the triage criteria of seriousness.
The triage criteria
Rule 3(a) of the rules states that:
‘Where the Regulator is in receipt of information raising a question about the fitness to practise of a social worker on any of the grounds listed in regulation 25(2), the Regulator must determine whether there are reasonable grounds for investigating whether the registered social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired by applying the following criteria’:
- the seriousness of the concern by reference to the pursuit of the regulator’s overarching objective
- the likely availability of sufficient evidence to support an allegation of impaired fitness to practise
- the concern suggests the registered social worker may have breached any relevant published professional or ethical guidance, rules, regulations, procedures or laws in place at the time of the events giving rise to the concern
- the outcome of, and subsequent actions arising from, an investigation carried out by a body referred to in regulation 7
- whether the registered social worker is taking, or has successfully completed, remedial actions in respect of the concern
- whether the registered social worker has been subject to an adverse finding in any previous investigations by the regulator, its predecessors, or a body referred to in regulation 7, into matters relevant to the registered social worker’s fitness to practise
These criteria are discussed in detail later in the guidance. The triage officer must first understand the principles contained within the triage test.
What are 'reasonable grounds'?
To be considered to have ‘reasonable grounds’, a concern should be (either):
- supported by direct evidence
- capable of being supported by direct evidence
When deciding if there are reasonable grounds for a investigation, the triage officer should consider (all of the following):
- whether the concern is based on speculation
- that the evidential burden is on us
- that the purpose of triage is not to find if a social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired but to decide if there are reasonable grounds to investigate
- that in order to investigate, triage officers must be able to identify one or more grounds for impairment
We will now go into more detail on each of these points.
There must be a basis for calling into question the social worker’s actions. It would not be right to open an investigation based entirely on speculation, just in case it happened to find evidence of impairment.
For example, social workers often have to take actions that may be necessary and appropriate but can have very profound and sometimes damaging consequences for individuals or families. It's essential to the effective and safe delivery of social care that social workers act with professionalism and integrity when taking such actions. But it is equally essential that a social worker who acts with professionalism and integrity should be able to do so without fear of scrutiny by their regulator.
A complaint based solely on disagreement with a social worker’s actions might be entirely speculative as to whether the social worker has acted improperly. In complaints such as this, the triage officer may seek guidance from the professional advisor as to whether there is a valid concern that the social worker has acted improperly. In their decisions, triage officers should identify and explain what it is about the social worker’s actions that give reasonable grounds for investigating their fitness to practise.
The evidential burden is on us to prove the facts to support a case of impairment. However, this burden is applied at the conclusion of the investigation, not at triage stage.
At the triage stage, there is only an obligation that the triage officer applies the triage criteria. If the possibility of impairment cannot be excluded having applied the triage criteria, then the triage officer should open an investigation.
The purpose of triage
Triage officers must bear in mind that it is not in their remit to decide whether the social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired. Their role is to assess whether there are reasonable grounds for us to investigate whether the social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired. It is then for the case examiners or adjudicators to decide whether or not a social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired following an investigation.
However, triage officers can conclude that there are no reasonable grounds for investigating. This decision may be on the basis that there is clear evidence that the social worker’s fitness to practise is not currently impaired.
Identifying the type of impairment
Triage officers should be able to identify the type of impairment that is raised by the concern. However, this does not bind the investigators, case examiners or adjudicators from identifying other types of impairment based on information and evidence obtained later in the case.
Applying the rule 3 criteria
Rule 3 of the rules sets out the criteria that must be applied to determine whether there are reasonable grounds for investigating whether a social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired.
Further guidance about each of the criteria is provided below. However, the core questions will always be:
- Are there reasonable grounds to investigate?
- If so, are they in respect of whether there is current impairment today and looking forward?
The triage officer must consider each of the criteria both individually and collectively. In some cases, some or all of the criteria may point one way, either to open an investigation or not. In other cases, some criteria may point towards opening an investigation, while others may point away from it. The decision on whether to open an investigation then becomes more complex.
For example, one of the criteria is whether the social worker is taking or has successfully completed remedial actions in relation to the concern. This raises the possibility that a concern may meet one of the other criteria in a way that suggests an investigation should be opened, but the remediation means there are no reasonable grounds for investigating whether the social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired today. The fact that one or more criteria may be satisfied does not necessarily mean an investigation must be opened.
If in doubt, favour opening an investigation
Triage officers must favour opening an investigation unless it can be shown conclusively that there are no reasonable grounds for investigating whether the social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired.
The first criterion: rule 3(a)(i)
The seriousness of the concern by reference to the pursuit of the regulator’s over-arching objective
Our overarching objective is the protection of the public. This involves the pursuit of the following objectives:
- to protect, promote and maintain the health, safety and wellbeing of the public
- to promote and maintain confidence in social workers in England
- to promote and maintain proper professional standards for social workers in England
Professional or personal?
A concern is more likely to fall under the remit of our overarching objectives if it involves a social worker’s professional conduct, rather than conduct in their personal life.
However, professional standards for social workers include (both of the following):
- ‘not to behave in a way that would bring into question my suitability to work as a social worker while at work, or outside of work’
- ‘not to abuse, neglect, discriminate, harm or exploit anyone, or condone this being done by others’
For example, a concern that a social worker condoned racial discrimination through posts on social media is very likely to warrant an investigation into their fitness to practise.
The triage officer is entitled to close a case without further action or assessment if the concern could not possibly result in a finding of impairment (either on its own or if repeated). For example:
- in minor complaints about personal conduct that are completely unconnected with the social worker’s professional practice such as a dispute between neighbours
- in professional work, where there is inaccurate record keeping about relatively minor matters such as recording annual leave where there is no evidence of dishonesty
How serious if repeated?
Triage officers might find themselves with a single concern that may not appear sufficiently serious in itself, but they should ask whether the concern would be capable of amounting to impairment if repeated. If so, this could weigh strongly towards investigation.
In cases like this, the triage officer should consider that:
- employer statements during an investigation might reveal further episodes of concern.
Case examiners may choose to issue advice or a warning with the aim of:
- reducing the risk of repetition
- it being taken into account if further similar concerns arise in the future
The relevance to seriousness of harm
Any concern that suggests the social worker might have put the public at unnecessary risk of harm (or might have caused actual unnecessary harm) will almost invariably meet the seriousness test.
What do we mean by harm?
Harm should be interpreted in its ordinary meaning of physical or emotional injury and may also include psychological and financial harm.
Some actions by social workers may cause harm (such as emotional distress) but are unavoidable in the context of the proper delivery of a social worker’s professional duties.
In assessing whether the harm or risk of harm was unnecessary, the triage officer should take into account whether it was both foreseeable and avoidable. Actions that lead to consequences, including harm, that could not have been foreseen, are very unlikely to justify an investigation.
Failure to intervene
Social workers also have very clear responsibilities to protect the public by intervening when others may be putting people at risk of unnecessary harm. If a social worker fails to intervene in response to evidence that a service user is at risk of harm, triage officers may consider this as being as serious as if they had committed those acts themselves.
Deciding not to open an investigation
Any decision not to open an investigation in cases where there has been a risk of harm or actual harm must explain the reasoning with extreme care.
If a social worker has successfully remediated and there is no current or future risk to public safety, it is possible that an investigation of their fitness to practise may be unnecessary. However, the triage officer should consider carefully whether an investigation is required to promote and maintain confidence in, or to promote and maintain standards for, social workers in England.
If public interest arises, an investigation will normally be necessary
As a general principle, an investigation should be opened if the concern is sufficiently serious that(one or both of the following):
- it is capable of undermining confidence in social workers in England
- action might be necessary to promote and maintain standards for social workers
This applies even if the social worker has fully remediated any deficiency in their practice that gave rise to the concern.
Personal remediation is unlikely to offset the wider public interest issues where (one or both of the following apply):
- confidence in the profession is at risk
- a signal needs to be sent about the standards social workers must observe
Relevance to seriousness of breaches of guidance, rules etc.
Assessment of the seriousness of the concern should take into account whether the social worker has breached any of the following that were in place at the time of the event(s):
If the concern suggests the social worker has followed all of these correctly, this will weigh heavily against opening a case on seriousness grounds. There is further guidance about assessing the seriousness of breaches of rules and guidance below.
Concerns about exercise of professional judgement
The triage officer should carefully assess whether complaints about the exercise of professional judgement meet the seriousness criterion. Social workers often have to make difficult decisions with far reaching consequences for service users and their families.
A complaint about the impact of a reasonable decision, properly arrived at, does not of itself amount to a concern, serious or otherwise. The triage officer should assess what it is about the exercise of judgement that may raise an issue of concern. For example, did the social worker take account of all relevant information? Was the exercise of judgement within the range of reasonableness and at a level commensurate with the social worker’s level of capability?
In answering these questions, they may choose to seek expert advice. There is a section later in this guidance about seeking expert advice.
The second criterion: rule 3(a)(ii)
The likely availability of sufficient evidence to support an allegation of impaired fitness to practise
At the end of an investigation, the burden is on us to prove the facts to support an allegation of impairment. This means that to open an investigation, the triage officer needs to consider the likelihood of us being able to obtain sufficient evidence that a social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired. The standard of proof is the civil standard, on the balance of probabilities.
We have the power to enforce disclosure of evidence. This means that the triage officer should (consider all of the following):
- consider what type of evidence would be required to substantiate the concern
- consider whether evidence is likely to be available to substantiate the concern
- not speculate on the quality of evidence that might be obtained on further investigation
In many cases, the only evidence may be the person who raised the concern or the referrer’s version of events against that of the social worker. The triage officer must not speculate on the credibility of either version of events. They may, however, take into account if a version is plainly irrational or demonstrably untrue.
The following are examples of where the triage officer might conclude that evidence is so unlikely to be available that the case should be closed:
- the events have already been formally investigated by another body and no evidence was found to support the concern
- the concern is speculative
- the concern is plainly irrational
- the concern is old
We will now go into detail about each of these scenarios.
The events have already been formally investigated by another body and no evidence was found to support the concern
Another body might include a social worker’s employer. The triage officer must look at what and how the other body investigated to decide whether or not a Social Work England investigation might come to the same outcome. The triage officer must carefully review the evidence obtained and considered by the other body rather than focusing on the outcome of the other body’s investigation.
Was the body's decision based on judgements about credibility?
The triage officer should be slow to close a case where another body resolved conflicts in evidence based on their judgement about its credibility– a Social Work England investigation might reach a different conclusion.
Did the other body explore all possible routes of investigation?
Also, the triage officer should be confident that the other body was able to (and did) explore all possible routes of investigation. Our powers as the regulator might mean that we can obtain evidence not obtainable by other bodies.
What was the other body actually investigating?
Other bodies may have been investigating against different objectives. For example, the police will be looking for evidence of criminality, but in the process may have uncovered evidence of unethical conduct. Even if the outcome of the investigation was that no crime was committed, we may choose to open an investigation into the unethical conduct.
The concern is speculative
An example of a speculative concern might be a concern that the social worker gave a dishonest opinion in family court proceedings.
If both of the following apply, the triage officer may decide that the assertion is without evidence and there is no likelihood of an investigation finding sufficient evidence:
- the basis of the concern is limited to disagreement with the opinion by a disadvantaged party
- the opinion was within the range of reasonable professional practice and accepted by the court
The triage officer should be careful to make sure that an unsubstantiated allegation of dishonesty does not obscure another aspect of the case, such as that the social worker failed to take into account all relevant factors when giving the opinion.
The concern is plainly irrational
It can be the case that vulnerable service users may make allegations that are serious in theory but could have no basis in reality. The triage officer is justified in closing such concerns without investigation on the grounds that there is no prospect of obtaining supporting evidence. ‘Irrational’ should be interpreted in its literal sense. Triage officers should not close apparently irrational allegations on the basis of speculation about the credibility of the person raising the concern. Cases may be closed on irrationality grounds only if the allegations could not possibly be true.
The concern is old
The age of a concern may impact whether or not there will be evidence of current impairment.
For example, a concern that is not sufficiently serious on its own to suggest impairment but could be if repeated. The older the concern, the more an absence of other adverse information may weigh towards closure.
The age of events may also make it harder to obtain evidence, but triage officers should remember not to speculate about what an investigation might find. The age of a concern may be more relevant to the question of how serious the concern is in the context of impaired fitness to practise today, rather than to whether there is likely to be evidence to support it.
Triage officers should not speculate on whether witnesses are likely to be able to recall events from several years ago or more. This is a question that can be addressed through investigation. However, if the person raising the concern is the only possible source of evidence and is vague about details of events that occurred some years ago, then the triage officer may conclude that there is no prospect of an investigation obtaining sufficient evidence.
The relevance of a delayed complaint
There are many reasons why a person may not be willing or able to bring a complaint at the time of events. Therefore, delay in raising a concern is not a reason to close the case. The triage officer must assess whether the age of the events affects the decision on whether to investigate, whatever the reasons why the concern was not raised previously.
The third criterion: rule 3(a)(iii)
The concern suggests the registered social worker may have breached any relevant published professional or ethical guidance, rules, regulations, procedures or laws in place at the time of the events giving rise to the concern.
The difference between guidance and baseline standards
The triage officer should be careful to note the difference between guidance promoting best practice and standards, rules, regulations and laws. The former are just that — guidance — whereas the latter set out baseline restrictions which must be observed. Some codes of practice (including ours) have combinations of best practice and baseline standards. Not all breaches of guidance about best practice will be sufficiently serious to suggest impaired fitness to practise.
Social Work England's professional standards guidance
Our professional standards guidance (does all of the following):
- explains the standards necessary for safe and effective practice
- set out what a social worker in England must know, understand and be able to do to stay on the register
- is the primary source document for decision makers on whether the fitness to practise of the social worker is impaired
It follows that often a breach of the professional standards guidance will be sufficient to provide reasonable grounds for investigation of current impairment. This may be on public protection grounds, but also because the guidance is the key document in setting standards for social workers in England. This means that action may be needed to promote and maintain proper standards for social workers in England.
However, the professional standards guidance is not a rule book. The fact of a breach of a particular paragraph of the guidance does not necessarily mean the social worker’s fitness to practise is likely to be impaired or that a message needs to be sent about the standards expected of social workers in England.
For example, standard 5.2 is to ‘maintain clear, accurate and up-to-date records, documenting how I arrive at my decisions’. A single episode of overlooking to update a record or of making an error (such as entering the wrong date) may not be serious enough to justify opening an investigation. The triage officer must still assess whether the breach is sufficiently serious to suggest current impairment. Whether the social worker is remediating or has already remediated any breach of the guidance may also be relevant.
The fourth criterion: rule 3 (a)(iv)
The outcome of, and subsequent actions arising from, an investigation carried out by a body referred to in regulation 7
Regulation 7 of the regulations lists various public bodies that either employ social workers or are involved in regulating them. It includes bodies such as the police. While we are not bound by the outcome of an investigation by one of these bodies, the evidence gathered and the conclusions reached may inform our decision about whether there are reasonable grounds to investigate the social worker’s fitness to practise.
Where another investigation does not uphold the case against the social worker
An investigation that finds the available evidence does not support the allegation may point strongly towards there being no likelihood of our investigation producing evidence of impaired fitness to practise. However, the triage officer should assess (all of the following):
- whether the investigation obtained all possible evidence
- whether the investigation has resolved conflicts of evidence
- if so, on what basis?
For example, if the investigation accepted one person’s word over another, was this based on hearing live testimony, and was it based on indisputable corroboration of one version of events? The triage officer must:
- bear in mind that we are not bound by another body’s investigation
- be slow to close a concern based on the body’s assessment of witness credibility
Where a criminal investigation has been closed without prosecution, the triage officer should review (both of the following):
- what was investigated
- why a prosecution was not brought
A criminal investigation might have focussed on criminality without considering ethical issues. For example, borrowing money from a service user might not have been theft but could have been exploitative of a vulnerable person. While our own investigation is unlikely to be able to obtain more evidence than the police, the triage officers should bear in mind that the test for prosecuting criminality applies the criminal standard of proof (beyond reasonable doubt), whereas we apply civil standard of proof (on the balance of probability) as well as other principles about public interest.
Where another body finds against the social worker
If another body has found facts proved against the social worker, the triage officer should assess whether there is any reason to question the strength of those findings. For example:
- Was the social worker allowed to give evidence and call witnesses?
- Were they entitled to be represented?
- Did the investigation take into account working environment and caseloads when judging the social worker’s actions?
Another body’s decision about sanctions arising from their investigation does nothing more than show how seriously the matter was viewed by that body. We must exercise our own judgement about seriousness in reference to the overarching objective and impaired fitness to practise.
This is particularly important because there is unlikely to be consistency of outcome across different bodies, whereas we must apply a consistent approach to assessing fitness to practise and sanctions.
Sometimes local factors may have impacted on the local investigation. For example, it is not uncommon in health and social care for whistleblowing to have either led to (or be a response for) a dispute between employer and employee. Such disputes can escalate (including through disciplinary investigation) without this necessarily pointing to a need for us to investigate fitness to practise.
In this case, the triage officer should not give any weight to the fact there was a local investigation or that this investigation resulted in an adverse outcome. However, the triage officer is entitled to assess the following when deciding whether there are reasonable grounds to open an investigation:
- the content of what was investigated
- the weight of evidence obtained
- the issues raised
Relevance of engagement
A social worker’s engagement with an investigation may point to their level of insight and remediation. This may be relevant to the question of current impairment where (both of the following apply):
- there has been good engagement with the local investigation
- the social worker has already successfully remediated any deficiencies in their practice identified by the investigation
However, if the social worker has not engaged with the investigation or only began remediation after initially denying fault, this may call into doubt the quality of insight and whether remediation is complete.
Outcomes of criminal prosecutions
In criminal cases, a conviction or caution will almost always require an investigation.
If the outcome of a criminal prosecution is acquittal, the triage officer should assess the reasons for the acquittal. Lack of sufficient evidence may well mean there are no reasonable grounds for us to investigate.
That said, the triage officer should:
- bear in mind that we apply the civil standard of proof, which is on the balance of probabilities
- bear in mind that there may well be no reasonable grounds to investigate a matter that has been fully tested through criminal trial and found not proved
- assess the facts of the criminal trial to see if there was unethical conduct which may suggest a breach of professional standards, even if a criminal offence was not committed
The fifth criterion: rule 3(a)(v)
Whether the registered social worker is taking, or has successfully completed, remedial actions in respect of the concern.
Relevance of wider public interest to remediation
If a concern is serious enough to impact the wider public interest (promoting and maintaining confidence in and standards for social workers on England) then an investigation of impairment is almost certainly indicated. This is regardless of whether the social worker may have remediated.
In cases like this, any remediation may still be a highly relevant factor when case examiners and adjudicators are deciding on sanctions after an investigation.
Importance and impact of remediation if there are no public interest issues
Social workers have a duty of candour, which means they must be open and honest when things go wrong, including by apologising and taking steps to put things right. Social workers also have a professional duty to maintain their own fitness to practise, including through retraining or other continuing professional development especially in response to specific events when they have failed to meet the required standards.
It is very much in the public interest that when things go wrong (as they often do from time to time) social workers take immediate steps to:
- put things right
- take all steps to prevent a recurrence
They should not wait for remedial action to be directed by us or their employer. As far as possible within the overarching objective, a social worker who has successfully remediated should expect this to be considered in any assessment of their current fitness to practise.
At the triage stage, we do not let the social worker know that we have received a concern. This means we cannot contact third parties, such as an employer, because this discloses the fact that we have received a concern which could be prejudicial to the social worker.
This means that we may not know whether the social worker has complied with their duty of candour or otherwise remediated. The triage officer may explore this with the person raising the concern, especially if the referrer is the social worker’s current employer. However, the triage officer should not assume remediation is complete and successful without positive evidence. The social worker will have full opportunity to provide evidence of remediation during an investigation, and in some cases doing so may result in shortening the investigation stage.
Deferring triage to allow remediation
In some cases, remediation may be ongoing. It may be reasonable to defer the triage decision pending completion of a local remediation programme. However, deferment is only appropriate if (all of the following apply):
- it is only for relatively short durations (a maximum of three months)
- there are no public interest issues are raised by the case,
- there is no current risk to public safety, and where
- there is no reason to believe that the social worker will not successfully remediate
The triage officer must bear in mind that a social worker who has not yet completed a remediation programme may be currently impaired.
There may only be no reasonable grounds to investigate if (all of the following apply):
- the social worker is close to completing remediation
- there is no doubt they will do so successfully
- the concern raises no public interest issues
Harder to remediate bad character (misconduct)
In general, the question of remediation is more likely to be relevant to issues of (any of the following):
- competence and capability
It is harder to remediate issues arising from character, such as dishonest conduct, and therefore unlikely that sufficient evidence of successful remediation could be available at triage to justify not opening an investigation. It is highly unlikely that there will be circumstances in which a concern of dishonesty could be closed at triage based on successful remediation.
Health related concerns
For health-related concerns, the term ‘remediation’ might be considered to mean ‘successful management’. It is not a requirement that the social worker be cured of their illness, only that they are capable of managing it so that the public is not at risk.
The triage officer may need to seek specialist advice about whether:
- the social worker’s condition is episodic in nature
- if so, whether the social worker has sufficient insight to manage their condition in a way that protects the public if they suffer a relapse
For more information about health concerns, read our health concerns guidance.
The sixth criterion: rule 3(a)(vi)
Whether the registered social worker has been subject to an adverse finding in any previous investigations by the regulator, its predecessors, or a body referred to in regulation 7, into matters relevant to the registered social worker’s fitness to practise
Previous adverse findings relating to a separate concern or event may be relevant, especially if the new concern is about similar matters.
A social worker who has been subject to a previous finding should have a heightened awareness of the standards expected, so fresh concerns raise issues about insight and capacity to remediate. Repetition of concerns where the social worker’s previous expressions of insight and remediation were accepted is very likely to warrant investigation of current fitness to practise.
Repeated episodes of impairment (even on unrelated issues) can also undermine the confidence of the public in social workers and should be referred for investigation.
Further enquiries and deferring decisions
The regulator may conduct any further enquiries it sees fit including obtaining advice before making a determination under rule 3(a).
When we can, and when we cannot, ask for further information
The purpose of further enquiries is to help inform the triage decision in reference to the six triage criteria discussed in the last section of this guidance. This means we should only conduct further enquiries that could affect the triage decision.
For example, if the concern is sufficiently serious and cogent to raise wider public interest issues then it will be appropriate to open an investigation without conducting further enquiries.
At the triage stage we can require any third party who we feel can supply information or documentation relevant to the triage decision, to provide that information or documentation. If there is nothing to suggest that a third party holds information relevant to the triage decision, we should not seek information from them as this may:
- be prejudicial to the social worker’s interests
- breach data protection legislation
- breach the social worker’s human rights
In general, the more serious a concern, the less it may be appropriate to conduct further enquiries (unless there is room for doubt about whether the concern can be supported through evidence).
The triage officer must bear in mind immediate risk to public safety. If an interim order might be required then in most circumstances, an investigation should be opened without there being a need or reason for further enquiries. However, in some circumstances the triage officer may determine that an interim order is required but that further enquiries should be conducted before determining whether an investigation should be opened.
The most likely scenario in which this may occur is where a social worker has been charged with a serious criminal offence but the criminal case has not yet concluded. In this case, we would likely want to conduct further enquiries to ascertain the outcome of the criminal case before deciding whether an investigation should be opened to make sure our decision was fully informed. In such instances, we can apply for an interim order at the triage stage, whilst also conducting further enquiries.
What is an interim order?
An interim order is a measure to protect the public by preventing a social worker from practising, or placing limits on their practice, until their case is heard. If an interim order is made, it will apply immediately.
Triage officers must familiarise themselves with the guidance on referral for consideration of an interim order which supports the regulator in making decisions whether to apply for interim orders. The “regulator” includes decision-makers in triage.
Further information from service users
The triage officer should be confident they have been presented with all the information related to the concern. This is particularly important for complaints from vulnerable service users who:
- may find it challenging to express their concerns clearly and fully
- may not necessarily know which aspects of a social worker’s actions might warrant an investigation
If necessary, we may need to offer service users further opportunities and support to communicate their complaint. In some cases, the triage officer may find it helpful to summarise the concern and ask the referrer to confirm the summary as accurate before making the triage decision. It’s essential for the quality of and confidence in triage decisions that the decision accurately reflects the concern the referrer wished to raise.
The triage officer may seek advice from our advisers before making a decision.
For example, they might seek:
- advice from a professional adviser about whether a concern suggests a breach of guidance and, if so, how seriously it might be viewed
- an expert medical view on the risks posed by a social worker’s reported health condition
The regulator may defer making a determination under rule 3(a) until the concern has been investigated and determined by a body referred to in regulation 7.
This rule is intended to support local resolution of concerns if this can be achieved safely and appropriately. It may also be used to await the conclusion of criminal investigations and prosecutions. Triage decision-makers should however still consider whether an interim order should be applied for in such cases, even if a decision has been made to defer making a determination.
Local investigations usually refers to an investigation conducted by an employer or local authority.
Ideally, when something goes wrong, a social worker will:
- identify that something has gone wrong
- make amends
- co-operate with their employer’s investigation
- engage with and successfully complete a remediation programme
Other than for very serious concerns that raise wider public interest issues, this local action should mean there is no need for us to be involved. It means concerns are addressed as quickly as possible, and risk of repetition addressed.
In deciding whether to defer a decision pending local investigation, the triage officer should consider the following:
- a) Whether the social worker is engaging with the local investigation. If there is limited engagement, this may call into question insight and risk of repetition.
- b) Previous history. This means any finding against the social worker by us or our predecessors, including anything resulting in informal advice. It does not include investigations that resulted in no action or concerns closed at triage. If the current concern suggests a pattern, then an investigation may be required to consider the social worker’s fitness to practise as a whole. This may be the case in particular if the previous history known to us is not necessarily known to the employer.
Previous complainant history
Social Work England, like any public sector body, will sometimes receive concerns from people that cannot be substantiated and may sometimes be driven by improper personal motives. If the principles in this triage guidance are applied correctly, then such concerns are likely to be closed for lack of evidence.
However, each new concern must be considered on its own merits, even if received from a person who has raised previous unsubstantiated concerns. The triage officer should check to make sure the concern is not one that has already been raised and considered previously, but beyond this the officer should not make any assumptions based on previous concerns about the likelihood of the latest concern being true.
Sometimes, the term ‘vexatious complaint’ is used— this means a complaint that is considered an annoyance. It is important to understand that this term applies to the concern, not the person submitting the concern. It may be that an individual concern might be classed as vexatious and closed on the basis that no sufficient evidence to support it would be available, but the person submitting the concern should not be regarded as ‘vexatious’ for the purposes of assessing any future complaints they may make.
Once a decision has been taken to close a concern, this cannot be reopened if referred again unless we have received significant new information. This information would have to support the concern to such an extent that it justifies the reconsideration of the triage decision.
Events outside the UK or when the social worker was not registered
If the events giving rise to the concern took place outside the UK or occurred when the social worker was not registered, then we may only investigate where we decide it is in the public interest to do so (regulation 25(2)).
In such cases, the triage officer should assess (both of the following):
- whether confidence in social workers generally might be at risk if an investigation was not conducted
- whether the concern is such that it may justify sending a signal about the standards to be maintained by social workers in England
The triage decision in these cases must set out how the public interest test has been applied.
For concerns about conduct that took place when the social worker was not registered, the triage officer may consider whether the concern points to evidence that the social worker failed to disclose this at the point of registration. If so, this may warrant an investigation of misconduct or, in extreme cases, whether registration was obtained fraudulently.
The decision and its reasoning
Although triage decisions are not published, they should be expressed in terms that would enable a third party who is unfamiliar with the content of the concern to understand (both of the following):
- what the concern is about
- why the decision has been taken
Apart from it being good practice for the triage officer to make sure the reasons fully reflect all relevant points they have been considered, this also helps:
- others (such as auditors) to review the case
- if there is follow up correspondence, or if a further concern is raised about the social worker in the future
How to set out a triage decision
The decision should begin with a summary of the concerns raised. This does not need to repeat the content of the concern but should demonstrate that the triage officer has fully understood and addressed the basis of the concern.
It should be clear:
- how each of the decision-making criteria has been applied
- the relative weight given to each
- how they have impacted on each other
If the decision is for closure, it should be clear whether a closure is because:
- of lack of evidence
- the concern is not sufficiently serious
- the social worker is no longer impaired even if they were at the time of the events
- for some other reason
Whether or not detailed reasoning is needed
Usually, more detailed reasons should be given where the decision is to close the concern because this will represent a final outcome for the case. However, the triage officer does not need to give lengthy reasons where the decision is obvious, for example where the concern is clearly so serious it must be opened.
Social workers with current open cases
If a concern is raised involving a social worker who already has an open case, or where the social worker is already subject to a current finding of impairment and associated sanction, the triage officer should first consider whether the new concern is of similar type to the open case.
Is the new concern similar to an open case?
If the new matter is similar and the alleged events occurred after the events of the open case were first under investigation, this may be viewed as increasing the seriousness of the new concern.
Should the new case be joined to the open case?
It is essential to urgently consider the impact the new concern could have on the status of the open case. If the new concern needs to be joined to the open case this may have to happen quickly, for example if the open case is coming up for a review hearing.
Is it necessary for an interim order?
It is also important to consider whether the new concern would warrant an application for an interim order or change the assessment of the balance of risk in an earlier decision not to apply for an interim order.
Read more about applying for an interim order in our interim order guidance.
Voluntary removal applications
In some cases, we may receive a voluntary removal application from the social worker while we are considering the concern at triage. In certain circumstances, a voluntary removal application can be granted while the social worker is subject to fitness to practise proceedings. This includes cases under consideration at triage, but this is at our discretion as the regulator.
Triage officers must familiarise themselves with the voluntary removal guidance which supports the regulator in making decisions whether to exercise its discretion to allow a voluntary removal from the register.
Last updated: 16 December 2022
- Content changed to reflect changes to our regulations and rules:
- ability to apply for an interim order at the triage stage
- power to compel the provision of information at the triage stage
- ability to grant a voluntary removal application at the triage stage
- application of rule 35 (fitness to practise rules) in making triage decisions
- Language reviewed to make the guidance more accessible
Previous update: 29 July 2022
- Updated to reference changes to our rules
First published: 1 December 2019