Learning at Work week is an annual event in May. It aims to to put a spotlight on the importance and benefits of learning and development at work. This year it takes place from 15th-21st May and the theme is 'Curious & Creative'.

ScOPT are running a series of articles on the website to tie in with Learning at Work week, as well as highlighting appropriate resources each day.

This post is about social work and the law by Jon Bolton.


Law and Lego

(Originally from an email to Social Work students at University of Dundee on 4th January 2016)

I've been spending the Christmas holidays playing with my 6 year old – mainly jigsaws and Lego.

Yesterday, he wanted to complete a fairly complicated jigsaw without using the picture on the box. And he did it remarkably well (better than me!) He's done this jigsaw many times before (experience) and he would have used his visual memory of the picture as well as shape recognition (knowledge) to establish which pieces went where.

And that got me thinking.

And then we played with Lego – he got some new kits as Christmas presents, but he also has quite a collection already. The kits come with detailed instructions and we could easily make quite complex models by following the instructions step-by-step, page-by-page. We watched the Lego movie one afternoon and then we played some more. He's particularly interested in space at the moment, and very keen to know about the International Space Station and British astronaut Tim Peake, so I made a rocket – we don’t have a Lego kit with any space things, so I had no instructions, but I do have an image in my head of what a rocket looks like, based on pictures in books, films and television. I used white Lego bricks for the main body and black bricks for the nose cone and the legs. We had some sloping bricks from the front of cars or house roofs, so I managed to get a fairly good rocket shape. A couple of small windows, a perspex orange flame from another kit, and it was sorted. It was important to me to get consistency – so the body was all white. No other colours allowed!!

My son made a car. He used every colour of brick imaginable. It was a complete mismatch of colour – no consistency at all. But it had 4 wheels, doors, windows and seats. It worked and he was pleased with it.

And that got me thinking again.

Students often want law teaching on social work programmes to provide definitive answers: What CAN I do? What CAN’T I do? What MUST I do? But it’s just not that simple.

We talk about the law being a framework – part of the jigsaw of the social work role – with other bits like risk assessment, ethics, discretion, etc, making a complete picture. But jigsaw is the wrong word.

Completing a jigsaw, with or without the picture on the box as a guide, will always result in one of two things. It will either be right, or wrong! And if it is right, it will always be exactly the same picture every time we do it.

Lego, on the other hand, is a set of interconnecting building blocks. We can follow the instructions and get a perfectly acceptable outcome. We can also use our knowledge, experience, imagination, different shapes, sizes and colours of bricks, even compatible bits from other brands, and get another perfectly acceptable outcome. And then we can rip it apart, build something completely different from scratch using the same materials, and get another perfectly acceptable outcome.

Were the kits right and our own freestyle attempts wrong? Was the rocket right and the car wrong? No, all were right in different ways.

And because of the environment that we work in as social workers, we need to use our building blocks of the law, risk assessment, discretion, ethics, research, theory, professional accountability, codes of practice, supervision, policy, guidance, partnerships (with service users, parents, carers, other professionals), morals and values - to build and rebuild our response to suit a particular situation. It won't be the same for everyone (thank goodness) and it won't be the same every time - but it won’t necessarily be 'wrong'.

The law is a framework. In relation to social work, it has evolved considerably over a number of years. It provides us with a structure in which we can do our job.


Laws change over time. They have to in order to keep relevant to society. For example, it is no longer illegal to be gay in the UK – homosexuality was a criminal offence until 1967. In the UK, you are no longer hanged for crimes – hanging was a legally defined punishment for certain offences such as treason until it was completely abolished in 1998. More recently, the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 2015 makes changes to the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003 to allow service users to with a mental disorder to access effective treatment quickly and easily, and makes some changes to the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 in relation to mental health disposals in criminal cases.

As social workers, the law gives us immense power – the power to intervene in family life, the ability to restrict liberty, and restrain. It can be used to promote individual and social change, but is also open to manipulation, abuse and unlawful interpretation. We can use our knowledge of the law in ways that further oppress and disempower service-users, or exercise it in a manner that informs service-users of their entitlements, protects their rights and enhances their quality of life.

We cannot ignore the law – to do so would be foolish and negligent – but as Braye and Preston-Shoot (2006) point out that there are few absolute duties in social work law. Most are discretionary. We are professionals. We can – and do – have a degree of autonomy in how we operate. The dictionary defines 'discretion' as "the power or right to decide or act according to one's own judgment; freedom of judgment or choice". Some people call it practice wisdom and in many ways, that’s a better definition.

Discretion is an important factor for several reasons:

Laws can sometimes conflict – the right to respect for private and family life (Human Rights Act 1998) potentially conflicts with removing a child from the source of risk with a Child Protection Order (Children's Hearing (Scotland) Act 2011).

We have to deal with uncertainty. We have to deal with risk. We deal with complex situations that rarely have one definitive right answer.

The law provides a mandate for practice, but good practice involves more than knowing and applying the law; it also involves social work skills, knowledge, values, experience, policy, guidance, discretion and ethics.

Social work history is filled with instances where social workers have had to make decisions of conscience about whether to obey the law, particularly when doing so seems to conflict with social work values. In the end, such decisions constitute some of the most difficult ethical dilemmas in the profession.

Ethics and law are explicitly linked. This is in part because ethics can be used as a lens through which to interrogate law and identify the broader social purposes that can be embedded within legal frameworks (Braye and Preston-Shoot, 1997). It is also because agency and professional practice has the potential to be at times either unlawful, unethical or both (Dickson, 1997), and you must have knowledge and the skills with which to respond (Preston-Shoot, 2000).

The law engages with profound social issues that lie at the heart of professional practice. It's an exciting and stimulating journey – and, when we get it right... 'everything is awesome'!

(Sorry, had to get it back to Lego somehow!)



Braye, S. and Preston-Shoot, M. (1997) Practising social work law (2nd Edn) Basingstoke: Macmillan

Dickson, D. (1997) 'Reflecting' in O. Hargie (Ed) The Handbook of Communication Skills. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge

Preston-Shoot, M. (2000) 'Making connections in the curriculum: law and professional practice', in R. Pierce and J. Weinstein (Eds) Innovative Education and Training for Care Professionals: A Providers Guide. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Braye, S. and Preston-Shoot, M. (2006) 'Broadening the vision: law teaching, social work and civil society', International Social Work, vol 49, no 3, pp 376-389


Leave a Reply