Social work and the law in Scotland
Social work and the law in Scotland

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Social work and the law in Scotland

3.6 Accountability

We have discovered that legal rules and principles are often more flexible than first imagined, but they still set the boundaries of permissible action and create a framework for decision making to which social workers are accountable. We have also seen that accountability is essential if power is to be kept in check and some of the negative effects of discretion are to be avoided. Decisions must be transparent, and the process by which they are made must be fair, reasonable and within legal powers.

The next activity allows you to think about the relationship between rules and accountability in more detail. The chapter you are asked to read considers what is meant by ‘accountability’ in relation to social work practice in Scotland.

Activity 9: Accountability

1 hour 20 minutes

Read Chapter 5, ‘Social work practice and accountability’, linked below.

Click to open Chapter 5 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Answer the following questions:

  1. How can accountability be defined?

  2. To whom is the social worker accountable?

  3. What tensions exist for social workers in relation to accountability?


Cameron suggests that, broadly, accountability means being obliged to give an explanation or being held to account for one's actions or inaction. This is distinguished from individual responsibility, as accountability is an organisational entity that derives from holding a particular position. Cameron emphasises the complexity of accountability within social work, where social workers are accountable to a number of individual groups, agencies and institutions. She identifies various types of accountability such as ‘legal accountability’, ‘public accountability’ and ‘professional accountability’ and illustrates the tensions that exist in practice by reference to a case involving community care.

It is important for social workers to be clear about where and to whom the accountability for their practice lies. For example, social workers are often faced with the situation where they have assessed a service user as needing services, but the local authority has insufficient resources to meet those assessed needs. Cameron argues that there is an imbalance of power between social work agencies and service users and where their interests conflict, social workers should consider how they can redress this balance and empower service users. The social worker in this situation should explain to the service user that he or she has a right to complain about a decision not to provide services, since the social worker is accountable both to the employer and service user.

There can therefore be tensions between the social worker's obligations to their employer and to service users. Cameron notes that there is also an imbalance of power between employer and employee, which can place workers who seek to challenge agency policies and practice in a vulnerable position. The introduction of legislation designed to protect workers from victimisation in employment when making disclosures in the public interest recognises the tension which exists in accountability to different groups.

If lines of accountability are not clear, service users in particular can suffer. This was recognised by the 21st Century Social Work Review, which emphasised the need for clearer accountability frameworks in order to minimise risk and effectively manage the range of agencies involved in the delivery of services, whilst placing greater autonomy in the hands of front-line workers. It also recognised the need for consistent and reliable relationships to be developed between social worker and service user, so that the first point of contact for advice is known and services are personalised (Scottish Executive, 2006a).

All of these forms of accountability exist within a legal framework, whether through the duty to comply with the regulatory codes of the SSSC, the contractual obligations which exist between employer and employee, the duty to establish complaints procedures, or the statutory power to conduct inquiries. Cameron uses the term ‘legal accountability’ to refer only to the judicial review of decision making by a court, but as we have seen, law is more than just what the courts do; it underpins other systems of accountability.

Figure 4 summarises the different types of relationships involved in social work accountability. Links to the websites for the professional bodies and regulatory agencies mentioned in Figure 4 can be found in the directory linked below.

Click to open the directory of websites.

Figure 4
Figure 4 Accountability in social work

Accountability is only possible where rules and principles exist to guide action. For social workers this includes not just legal rules and values, but the rules and values of their profession. The SSSC Code of Practice for Social Service Workers requires social workers to ‘be accountable for the quality of their work’ and ‘uphold public trust and confidence in social services’. Social workers must remember that they are also accountable to members of the public who use their services and who have a legitimate interest in how they perform their role.

It is possible that the association of law with accountability is one of the reasons why the idea of law is viewed negatively by some practitioners. Intrusive and mechanistic accountability structures can undermine professional autonomy and values, placing undue emphasis on the risks of social work and encouraging a culture of blame. The proliferation of new accountability structures, through for example enhanced regulation and inspection, can also be perceived as bureaucratic time wasting, placing additional strain on scarce resources.

The following activity asks you to consider this resistance to accountability by learning more about the role of inquiries into health and social care services.

Activity 10: Learning from inquiries: implications for policy and practice

0 hours 45 minutes

Table 1, linked below, contains examples of influential inquiries into social work services published during the past 30 years. The selection is intended to be indicative of the learning opportunities provided by inquiry findings across the range of social work practice areas; it is not a comprehensive account of all relevant inquiries in this field. Reports from England and Wales are included where the findings have raised significant questions for social work practice in Scotland.

Read Table 1 and consider your reaction to its contents. Try to note down what you think might be the positive and negative effects of inquiries as a form of public accountability.

Click to view Table 1.


Failures in social work policy and practice can have tragic consequences, as these high-profile cases demonstrate. They are extremely damaging to public perceptions and undermine confidence in the profession. It is rather depressing to read a catalogue of inquiry findings which convey remarkably consistent messages about how to improve social work services through training, improved communication, information sharing, record keeping, better interagency work and supervision (Galilee, 2005). It is equally frustrating to note delays in implementing recommendations and (with a few notable exceptions) the apparent inadequacy of the policy response.

As a method of accountability intended to review professional practice with a view to preventing future mistakes, inquiries therefore have their limitations. They may project an unrepresentative image of social work and its capacity to alleviate social harm by focusing on organisations' and practitioners' failings and minimising the role of environmental factors beyond their control. They focus on individual cases, with the benefit of hindsight, and have contributed to a ‘climate of fear’ amongst workers who wish to avoid ‘media vilification’ (Scottish Executive, 2006a, p. 52). The 21st Century Social Work Review suggested that the publicity surrounding high-profile inquiries had had a damaging effect on practice, constraining the social work role and limiting the discretion available to frontline workers through an increased management emphasis on the monitoring of risk. This is not the point of accountability, nor was it envisaged by the inquiry recommendations, but it can encourage ‘conveyor-belt’ social work that prioritises the agency's protection from blame and fails to take responsibility for the interests of service users.

Part of the frustration on reading these reports stems from the realisation that they are a valuable learning resource which is not being fully utilised (Stanley and Manthorpe, 2004). The summary table tells us a lot about the key practice dilemmas in social work: the difficulty of knowing whether, when and how to intervene, the potential for abuse of power and the problems encountered when working with uncertainty. As examples of what can go wrong they also reinforce the importance of developing a more sophisticated appreciation of the legal framework which guides the social work task and what is meant by being accountable to this in practice. Just as rules are not simple commands, accountability is not all about enforcement and the allocation of blame: it should promote responsibility in the social work role, protect the service user, and form a basis for public trust.

The 21st Century Social Work Review (itself a very positive consequence of the Scottish Borders inquiry) recommended that greater autonomy should be given to social workers to exercise their professional judgement in individual cases. It also recognised that this is only possible where there are clear accountability frameworks, and where professionals are able to understand their role and recognise the limits of their competence. In addition this requires new approaches to social work governance, with the emphasis on sharing best practice and learning from mistakes (Scottish Executive, 2006a). Legal accountability cannot on its own guarantee better service quality, but if understood in its wider context, it can facilitate the promotion of standards in social work.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus