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Essay: Why is the law important for social work and social work service users

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The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines Law as “a rule or system of rules recognized by a country or community as regulating the actions of it’s members”. The law can impact on social work in different ways across and within client groups. The aim of this essay is to consider the importance of law for social work and social work users taking into consideration the relevance of social work values.

Social workers have to make decisions and choices in their everyday practice based on both their own values and the values requirements as set out by the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW). These choices and decisions must also be made in line with policies, procedures and laws.

“A distinction may be drawn between social work law, which includes those powers and duties that expressly mandate social work activity, and social welfare law, comprising statutes with which social workers must be familiar if they are to respond appropriately to service users needs, but which do not permit or require specific actions by them” (Preston-Shoot et al.,1998a, cited in Social Work Themes, Issues and Critical Debates).

It is essential for social workers to have knowledge of the relevant statutes and laws so that they know what powers they have available to them within the legal framework.

“If practitioners do not know where they stand legally they cannot begin to do their job properly” (workbook p18).

For example, any social worker working with children must be aware of the Children Act 1989. The aim of the act is to simplify the law relating to children, making the law more appropriate by making it child centred. It promotes a “no order principle” in that it is deemed to be in the children’s best interests for matters to be agreed between parties rather than to involve the courts. However, there are a variety of orders contained within the act and the courts will make an order when it is satisfied that making one is better for the child than not making such an order. All child protection work must be carried out within the context of the Children’s Act 1989 and it is imperative that social workers involved in this field have sound knowledge of the orders it contains to be able to practice more effectively and within the law. The Children Act 1989 has areas which correlate to both ‘public’ and ‘private’ law. Private law covers issues such as divorce or disputes over which parent a child should reside with. Public law sets duties for the local authority to provide services for a child ‘in need’ or ‘at risk’.

“The same fundamental principles apply in both private and public law; that is, the welfare of the child is paramount” (workbook 2 p.18).

The Children’s Act 1989 seeks to offer greater protection to children. However, there may sometimes be conflict between social work values and the law, for example the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

The course reader (p220) describes the principal aim of the CDA 1998 (s.37) as the “prevention of offending by children and young persons”.

“Since the introduction of the CDA 1998, youth justice policy in England and Scotland has diverged with an apparently greater focus on a ‘justdeserts’ approach to child offending in England” (Social Work, Themes, Issues and Critical Debates p.276).

This could create a dilemma for the social worker who within the Children Act 1989 sees the support of the child as the main priority, a child in trouble is often a child in need.

Many service users are in some way disadvantaged and may have had to deal with poverty, social exclusion and/or discrimination. Professional social work values are part of the core competencies (CCETSW), these are defined as “having a clear set of values which actively informs your social work practice, particularly concerning promoting the intrinsic ‘worth’ or ‘value’ of another human being” (K111 aids to practice card). Valuing something means that we know its worth “this is essential in social work precisely because many service users are seen by society as ‘undeserving’ or as ‘worthless’. Indeed, some service users have this view of themselves” (K111 aids to practice card, valuing). Knowing that there are laws and regulations in place ensuring that they have rights may empower service users, Bray & Preston Shoot (1995:48 cited in Social Work, Themes, Issues and Critical Debates p.38) state that empowering a person will give them “more control over their lives, to have a greater voice in institutions, service and situations which affect them”.

“Sometimes the demand to be treated in a fair manner coincides with legal requirements, for example, the laws prohibition of racist behaviour and practices supports the demand that all people are treated with respect. All service users have the right to expect to be treated in a non-discriminatory way and to be informed about their rights” (workbook p11).

The course reader states that “the law can also be seen as a champion of the unprivileged and dispossessed” and Williams (as cited in course reader p.15) “sees the law and the language of rights as playing a part in the fight against discrimination:

“for the historically disempowered, the conferring of rights is symbolic of all the denied aspects of their humanity: rights imply a respect that places one in the referential range of self and others, that elevates ones status from human body to social being”.

Social workers may have contact with service users from a wide range of cultural, social, ethnic and religious backgrounds and so must be committed to anti-discriminatory, anti-racial and anti-oppressive practice. They have a responsibility to “identify, analyse and take action to counter discrimination, racism, disadvantage and injustice, using strategies appropriate to role and context and to respect and value uniqueness and diversity”(CCETSW 1995 p.19 workbook p62).

The law can be a useful tool when countering discrimination, the Race Relations Act 1976 states that “it is generally unlawful to discriminate against a person on grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origin or nationality”. The Children Act 1989 also “requires that any services provided for children by the local authority should be responsive to religious, racial and cultural needs”(workbook p.64). ” While you will find legislation preventing discrimination on the basis of race, sex or disability, you will not find similar legislation promoting anti-oppressive practice”(workbook p 12). Dominelli defines anti-oppresive practice as “practice that aims to provide more appropriate and sensitive services by responding to peoples needs regardless of their social status”(dominelli 1993:24 as cited in p6 Social Work Themes, Issues and Critical Debates). In order to empower service users and enable them to maximise their interests it is essential to be aware of the relevant laws available pertaining to discrimination and “practice in a manner that does not stigmatise or disadvantage either individuals, groups or communities”(workbook p22). The law also ensures that there is legal accountability and that the social workers are meeting relevant standards of practice and working in a lawful, safe and effective way. This could aid the service users if they needed to complain or challenge decisions that have been made. Also, “Some social workers have acquired a competence in operating in the court system and are thus able to advance the interests of service users”(reader p12). If the social worker has knowledge of the laws and entitlements they are more able to provide advice and advocacy.

In conclusion, the law provides a structure for social work with guidance, direction, the “framework within which individual social workers have to act (px111 reader) and “the framework within which social work knowledge is applied ( reader p.18). It provides social workers with the powers (authority) and duties (something social work is required to do by law) (workbook p41) they need to do their job properly as professionals. According to CCETSW “Social workers assist people to have control of and improve the quality of their lives, and are committed to reducing and preventing hardship and disadvantage for children, adults, families and groups. They intervene in the lives of people whose life chances may have been adversely affected by poverty, ill health, discrimination and/or disability” (K111 Aids to Practice Cards). The law enables them with the powers to intervene to both protect and serve their service users, helping to fulfil basic human rights through just legal processes. Social workers need to be committed to keeping up to date with the law and using the laws to achieve the best outcomes for the service users, “legal values can accord with social work values and can help social workers to work in a positive way to support and empower service users”(workbook p25).


Pearsall J, The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2002), 10th Edition, University Press

K269 Social Care, Social Work and the Law, England and Wales

Adams. R, Dominelli.L, & Payne, M, 2nd Edition Social Work, Themes, Issues and Critical Debates, Palgrave

K111 Social Work Practice Learning (stage 1, 2002, Open University, Milton Keynes), Aids to Practice Cards

Cull, L. & Roche, J. The Law and Social Work, Contemporary Issues for Practice, 2001, Palgrave

K269 Law Cards (2003), race relations children act crime and disorder act

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