ISW Pay Rates
When Cafcass started to be unable to meet courts request’s for Children’s Guardians the Legal Services Commission (LSC) became concerned that its legal aid funds were at risk of being used to engage Independent Social Workers (ISWs) as substitutes for the absent Cafcass Guardians. Indeed, I think this did occur on a few occasions. At the same time Cafcass, in pursuit of its aim of having a fully employed workforce wanted its self-employed contractors to sign up for contracts of employment and not be tempted to start to practice as Independent Social Work experts in the courts. Thus, it greatly suited both the LSC and Cafcass to decide that ISWs would be paid at a maximum of the Cafcass “hourly rate”. This would help the LSC to reduce its expenditure on experts in the family courts and would encourage ISWs to seek employment with Cafcass. Both organisations found it convenient to fudge the actually very distinct differences between the roles of Guardian and ISW expert. For explanation of the different roles see Pink Tape’s very helpful summary.
However, the courts increasingly find they need ISW expert assessments and evidence in complicated cases. They have come to realise that often these ISWs are able to deploy skills that shift the logjams in otherwise intractable cases which, apart from helping the individuals involved, can reduce overall costs significantly by shortening cases. The “Cafcass rate” is £30 and hour which might seem quite good until one realises that medical and psychologist experts are usually paid at up to five times that hourly rate. What is more a few professional ISW agencies have sprung up to supply approved ISWs and ensure their work is up to scratch. ISWA and Willis Palmer are possibly the best known. If the LSC will only pay Cafcass rates then ISWs, working through such agencies will probably only receive about two thirds of the Cafcass rate.
The result of these various bureaucratic manipulations is that the more skilled ISWs will, like many solicitors nowadays, refuse Legal Aid work leaving that field to the less experiences and less expert. That will reduce the quality of social work expertise available to the courts and in turn the courts will find such work less and less useful and will become less inclined to value or use social work expertise even in intractable cases.
The answer, to the sometimes alleged although difficult to pin down idea, that there is a lot of overuse of experts in the family courts is not to try to price one group of experts out of the system but rather to force the courts to be more disciminating in deciding which cases do and which do not require expertise and to be more precise about what expert help they require.