Reflections on the outcome of the contempt of court case

I have copied this post from the blog that the Chief Social Work Officer for the City of Edinburgh Council, Michelle Miller, posted on the CEC intranet recently. We welcome comment and debate on this. The post has been reproduced with Michelle’s kind permission:

Reflections on the outcome of the contempt of court case – Chief Social Work Officer’s Blog

You will be aware that in December 2013, two social work managers from our Children and Families service were found to have acted in contempt of court. Sheriff Mackie ruled they had failed to obey a court order for a mother to have weekly contact with her sons, who had been accommodated by the Council. Despite this finding, the Sheriff made clear that our managers did not act in breach of their statutory duties and did not impose any penalty. At all times, the managers acted to protect the interests of two vulnerable children. We cannot underestimate the enormous impact this had, both personally and professionally, on the staff involved, and on the social work world more generally.
Our colleagues appealed and the contempt of court conviction was quashed in March 2015. The judgment is a very powerful one – the appeal was upheld in the strongest terms by the Court of Session, confirming that contact was suspended and the matter referred to the children’s hearing “out of a genuinely held concern” for the children.
We all welcome this judgement and are pleased that common sense has prevailed. From the outset, our experienced child protection managers were motivated to act in the best interests of the children. The wellbeing of vulnerable children is of paramount importance for us all. The judgement recognises that children’s behaviour is a powerful indicator of their emotional state, and forms not only a legitimate, but a critical part of our assessment process. It needs to be taken into account in our decision-making.
We work in highly complex, often stressful and uncertain situations, where assessment and decision-making are a huge responsibility. We have an unequivocal duty to obey by the law, and safeguarding the interests of children is part of that statutory duty. The task of focusing on the child, whilst recognising that children’s needs will sometimes include a dependency on a relationship with an abusive parent, and making decisions within the law (imperfect as it is) is a hugely difficult and complicated balancing act.
All of these principles and complexities apply equally to our responsibilities to protect vulnerable adults.
The Orkney Inquiry (published in October 1992) emphasised these exact same issues. We need to look at opportunities, which exist within the boundaries of the law if we believe that vulnerable people are at risk and need further protection. We also need to be transparent, so that people we support can understand our actions and are given the opportunity to challenge our decisions about their lives. We work within a legal framework, and do not place ourselves above the law or the rights of other stakeholders. Social workers must make judgements in determining how circumstances are reconciled and the best interests of vulnerable children and adults are protected within timescales that do not always allow for pre-determined legal sanction. Sometimes we need to act quickly and decisively.
The circumstances of this case are not uncommon across Scotland, and we need effective dialogue with the government and the judiciary regarding how important decisions can be made within a timeframe that makes sense to children’s developmental stages. The Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration and Social Work Scotland are developing a protocol to deal with specific cases where the impact of contact arrangements is assessed as distressing or in conflict with the best interest of the child.
The past year has been very challenging for our staff and I am delighted they have been fully vindicated in the decisions they took, as has the social work profession. We hope that one positive outcome will be changes at national level, which will enable professionals to continue to work in the best interests of vulnerable children and adults.
Please share your thoughts on this issue. What can we learn from this case? Are there any other changes for which we may need to advocate to ensure that arrangements are safe? Are your training and supervision needs being met in this regard? Is there any additional support you may need?
I look forward to your comments.

1 Response to “Reflections on the outcome of the contempt of court case”

  1. 1 David Orr – Response to Michelle Miller’s blog post and the Contempt case | Trackback on April 23, 2015 at 15:54

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