Contempt ruling ‘hits social work’

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TWO social workers who defied a sheriff and stopped a mother from seeing her estranged children have been found guilty of contempt of court in a ruling which unions have warned could have a major impact across the country.

Carol McCulloch and Gillian Lawrence, who work for the city council, were charged with contempt after failing to implement a legal order allowing a woman to see her children for two hours once a week.

Sheriff Kathrine Mackie – the judge who passed the original order – said the two care workers had deliberately ignored the May 2013 court order. And despite defence arguments that they had been concerned for the welfare of the child, Sheriff Mackie found the pair in contempt, saying they should have addressed their concerns to a court.

In a judgement, Sheriff Mackie said: “It must be emphasised that social workers are in no different a position from anyone else and require to comply with orders of the court, Children’s Hearings and the general law.

“They have no authority to act unilaterally, however strongly held their views may be. Accordingly, they are guilty of contempt of court.”

Sheriff Mackie said no further penalty would be imposed.

The decision follows months of legal hearings involving McCulloch and Lawrence. It arose from a decision made by Sheriff Mackie in May this year when the judge heard an appeal from a case heard by the Children’s Panel in Edinburgh concerning a mother who was estranged from her children.

Her lawyers wanted the court to make arrangements which would allow her to see the children once a week for two hours at a time. Sheriff Mackie agreed and was satisfied the youngsters would not be placed in a harmful situation.

However, in July, the social workers decided that it wouldn’t be appropriate to allow the mother to see the children, as they suspected the woman was involved in a physically abusive relationship.

The mum didn’t see her children until August 2013.

Following the judgement, union Unison called for an urgent legislative review and warned the case could have wide-ranging implications.

Dave Watson, Unison’s Scottish organiser, said: “Our social work members have an overriding duty to ensure the child’s welfare is paramount in all that they do. However, it seems this is not considered relevant during contempt proceedings. This is clearly a conflict of laws. Social work staff deal with complex and challenging cases on a daily basis and this decision merely muddies the water and puts those working on the front line in a very difficult and vulnerable position.”

newsen@edinburghnews.com