Social workers get training to act instead of solicitors
Part of reforms to reduce legal costs
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald says social workers will be given increased training to enable them to deal with children’s court cases instead of solicitors as part of Government efforts to reduce legal costs. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Social workers will be given increased training to enable them to deal with children’s court cases instead of solicitors as part of Government efforts to reduce legal costs.
Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald indicated this could mean social workers going into court without solicitors. It is also part of an effort to move to increased mediation of cases.
The minister said it was “not going to be sustainable from a child protection point of view if all our money is going on legal costs”.
However, she did not believe this would cause difficulty with the legal profession, adding: “I don’t see it as a confrontational issue”.
Guardian Ad Litem
Other reforms designed to reduce costs include changing the Guardian Ad Litem service, in which an independent representative is appointed by a court to represent a child’s personal and legal interests.
In an interview with The Irish Times, Ms Fitzgerald said she was working with Minister for Justice Alan Shatter to introduce a new system, and this will happen in the first half of next year.
Legal fees accounted for €31.1 million out of her Department’s total budget of over €560 million in 2012, she said. Of this, €13.1 million was spent on HSE solicitors contracts, €2.8 million went on counsel fees, €10.8 million on Guardian Ad Litem costs, while other costs totalled €3.3 million.
The Minister said she would like the €31.1 million legal spend to fall by a third.
In 2011, some independent social workers earned more than €100,000 for working as guardians ad litem.
“We have to look at the HSE childcare legal costs because the kind of broad message is, obviously you need legal services, you need guardians but can we contain the cost?” Ms Fitzgerald said.
“There is a feeling out there that in some instances the costs have got out of control in terms of everybody having a senior or junior counsel, having solicitors. Could more social workers go into court without solicitors in some instances? We get about 60 per cent (of cases) where there is agreement anyway.”
Social workers will be given more training to enable them manage cases involving vulnerable children.
“It does mean changing the management of cases and giving more training to social workers who are going into court; more support for them, a bit more focus on the work they’re doing. The adversarial system is not working and we are getting huge inconsistencies.”
The training would give social workers “more confidence”, Ms Fitzgerald added.
“We expect a lot from the frontline social workers and retention is a big issue. If you don’t give them support and supervision and training, they are going to be nervous about going into court. It is very challenging going into court.”