Local Authority Social Workers’ Evidence in Care Proceedings
: social work and legal evaluations of professional expertise

  • Ann M O Potter

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


This qualitative, socio-legal study explores evaluations of local authority social workers’ evidence and expertise in care proceedings, from social work and legal perspectives. Legal reforms were identified as necessary to reduce the length and cost of care proceedings (MoJ 2011b), including an imperative to reduce the numbers of independent expert witnesses appointed in care proceedings. This placed more importance on the evidence of local authority social workers, leading to attempts by the senior judiciary to re-position social workers as experts in care proceedings (Munby 2013a). However, this appeared to conflict with serious criticism of social workers in high profile judgments such as Re B-S (Children) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146. This apparent contradiction provided a focus for the study, to consider how local authority social work expertise is understood and evaluated in contemporary care proceedings. The views and experiences of social workers, lawyers and judges in care proceedings in one family court area were gathered through focus groups, interviews, analysis of written evidence and judgments, and ethnographic observations in a sample of ‘live’ cases. This enabled consideration of professional practice and experiences, as well as the underlying influences of system and structural changes. A critical realist philosophical framework underpinned the study, involving interpretative, theoretical re-description of the data, through the application of abductive and retroductive analysis. The novel application of Collins and Evans’ (2007) theory of expertises within abductive analysis provides a nuanced understanding of the social processes involved in the inter-disciplinary communication and evaluation of expertise in care proceedings. Goffman’s (1959) concept of impression management provides supplementary insights for the ‘performance’ of expertise within a legal process. Findings from the study are relevant for social workers, lawyers and judges in relation to their professional development, and provide insights and suggestions in relation to improved approaches to system review and reform.
Date of Award29 Sept 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorJudith M Masson (Supervisor) & Danielle Turney (Supervisor)


  • Socio-legal research
  • Care proceedings
  • Social workers
  • Expertise
  • Judicial evaluation
  • Legal evaluation
  • Critical Realism
  • Collins & Evans
  • Goffman

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