Social work and law are both contested concepts, open to a range of possible meanings, depending on their context and the source of their definition. An understanding of these competing meanings is essential to good professional practice and provides a foundation for examining the relationship between social work and the law which is central to this course. The relationship between social work and the law is subject to change, as the organisation and delivery of social care services attempts to respond to societal demands and the content of law reflects societal tensions.
Social workers are legal actors and legal creations: they have power to make assessments and decisions which affect people's lives and are accountable for the exercise of this discretion. This is why they need to understand legal rules. The social work role, however, is not only defined by law. Professional skills and values underpin social work practice; they must be applied within a legal framework, but they are not limited by it.
This course has provided an introduction to ideas about social work practice and the nature of law. Box 5 summarises some key points.
Box 5: Key points
Public perceptions about social work and the law can affect social work practice.
Social workers need to recognise their own values and prejudices.
The law in social work practice and decision making has become increasingly important, strengthened by education and training requirements for professionals working in the field of social care and social work.
An understanding of law can empower service users and enhance social work accountability.
Social workers are given their mandate to practise by law.
Law confers duties, powers, rights and responsibilities.
There is scope for discretion in some areas of decision making and social workers can have an important role to play when this is the case.
To be confident and competent, social workers need to know the law and be able to apply it, whilst always integrating the law with their social work skills and values.
Social workers should also reflect critically on the law and engage with the need for policy change.