Learning, teaching and assessment of law in social work education

Key messages from Knowledge Review 08: What should the content of law teaching be?

Core knowledge content

A key decision is whether the content of law teaching should be confined to legislation that provides core mandates for service provision, or whether a broader framework should be constructed. In practice, the common core of content included in most programmes focuses on legal systems and structures and core mandates for child care, community care, mental health and youth justice. There are some national variations across the UK. For example, criminal justice is seen as integral to the curriculum in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not in England and Wales. While all programmes include teaching on human rights legislation and anti-discrimination legislation, the depth of this coverage is variable.

The potential range of legislation for inclusion, however, is extremely broad, and extends far beyond legislation providing the core mandates for service provision. Examples include the following:

Systems and structures

  • Legal systems
  • Sources of law

Legislation mandating social work intervention

  • Child care and child protection
  • Adoption
  • Community care - older people, disabled people and people with mental health needs
  • Mental health
  • Youth justice
  • Criminal justice

Legal frameworks that regulate aspects of social work practice

  • Human rights
  • Anti-discrimination legislation
  • Data protection
  • Confidentiality
  • Capacity and consent
  • Partnership and participation
  • Interagency and interprofessional practice
  • Complaints procedures
  • Whistleblowing

Legal frameworks affecting the broader lives of service users

  • Human rights
  • Anti-discrimination legislation
  • Health
  • Housing
  • Education
  • Matrimonial and partnership law
  • Welfare rights

There is an inherent tension between breadth and depth of content, particularly given restrictions on curriculum time allocated to law.

Advantages of breadth

  • Maps the broad territory for students
  • Ensures they understand the broad range of law affecting service users’ lives
  • Offers choices about where to develop in-depth knowledge

Advantages of depth

  • Gives in-depth knowledge of core mandates
  • Provides a sound understanding of what law practitioners will themselves be drawing on
  • Facilitates the development of specialist expertise

It is clearly important for social workers to know the sources of their authority to act. Arguably, however, restricting the content of learning to the core mandates for social work and social services provision leaves students in ignorance of important aspects of the framework for accountability, and of law that can support service users’ access to a broader range of entitlements.

A related decision is how one defines 'legal framework’. While all programmes claim to describe sources of law, it is more common to find teaching that focuses predominantly on statute, and perhaps on guidance and regulations. The impact of case law, of common law, of local authority circulars and of international conventions such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, is less likely to be understood by students.

Experts by experience were keen to emphasise the value of breadth of learning, at least to provide a 'map’ of possible areas of relevant knowledge. They did not, however, always share the same priorities as academics about the desired content of law teaching. While not disagreeing about the need for social workers to understand the framework for service provision, they felt this did not always go far enough, and that additional content was required. They were particularly concerned at the lack of focus on housing and homelessness legislation, pointing out that families have been known to have their children removed through lack of suitable housing.

Service users’ priorities for the content of law teaching

  • Complaints procedures
  • Human rights across the spectrum - civil and political, social and economic
  • Anti-discriminatory legislation
  • Housing and education
  • Advocacy
  • Integration between seemingly discrete areas of legislation, for example the rights of disabled parents to support for their parenting under community care legislation as opposed to child care legislation
    • The rights of disabled children to services under disability legislation as well as under child care legislation
    • The position of young offenders who are both 'children in need’ and subject to youth justice provision
    • Asylum seekers who are subject to immigration rules, but may have needs arising from vulnerability due to age or disability
  • Ways for students to keep themselves up to date with legal knowledge

Law and ethics

While law and ethics are explicitly linked in only a minority of programmes, strong arguments are advanced in the literature for this approach to become more commonplace in social work education (Roche, 1997). 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 practitioners must have knowledge and the skills with which to respond (Preston-Shoot, 2000a).

One problem, however, is the commonly held view of law as being contrary to social work values. Negative images of law pervade social work literature. Law is seen as contributing to the commodification of care and to managerialist-technicist practice that undermines professional judgement (Harlow, 2003), and as compromising social work’s value and professional autonomy (Manktelow and Lewis, 2005). While social work programmes indicate a strong values component to law teaching, it is not uncommon for law and social work to be presented as somehow oppositional, with more attention to its role in restricting autonomy than in promoting rights or social justice.

Social work students struggle to see law as a source of empowerment, either for themselves or for service users, tending to assume that the law is always oppressive in its curtailment of liberty (Dewees and Roche, 2001; Preston-Shoot, 2001). Law is commonly seen by practitioners as a trap, liable to catch them out or be used as a tool with which to blame them when things go wrong.

But such negative images underplay the space the legal rules create for practitioners to exercise discretion when implementing duties and powers, and to target individual and social change: they underplay the synergies between law and social work values (Preston-Shoot et al, 2001). Experts by experience in the knowledge review were keen to see social workers engaging with a more rights-oriented approach to law. Locating a more overt focus on ethics within law teaching opens up this potential.


While much of the focus of law teaching is on the acquisition of core knowledge, there is equally an emphasis on skills acquisition. Educators see the application of legal knowledge to practice as a key skill that students must develop. In many respects, this involves establishing law as a lens through which situations encountered in practice will be viewed. It is related first to skills in problem definition and analysis and the subsequent identification of tools for problem solving. Second it is about recognising where the law requires practice to be carried out in a certain way, for example in partnership, or with regard to the concept of proportionality. Third, there are situations in which practitioners are called on to give account of themselves, to explain why they have approached practice in a particular way, or to advance an argument or challenge to the actions of others. Fourth, reflection and critical analysis skills enable practitioners to integrate their experience of using the law within new frameworks for understanding.

Educators also believe that students must develop legal research skills. This is related to the recognition that it is impossible to include in the curriculum everything that a practitioner needs to know about law in the social work context. Equally, it is recognised that the legal framework frequently changes and that knowledge can be quickly outdated. Competent practitioners will know how to find and update their legal knowledge and understanding, and students must learn techniques and become familiar with resources that enable them to do this.

Law skills

  • Identifying potential legal content in a case situation
  • Working inductively from practice to legal knowledge
  • Researching legal knowledge that is relevant to a case situation
  • Critically analysing the options
  • Constructing and advancing an argument for lawful practice
  • Reflecting on practice
  • Updating knowledge and understanding


  • Knowing what may or must be done
  • Knowing how it must be done
  • Being able to explain why
  • Building new understanding from experience

Experts by experience felt strongly that social workers should be skilled in the use of advocacy, court craft, partnership working and interagency working. They should be skilled in bringing together different components of the legal rules, for example when involved with disabled parents and in discussing how the legal rules would be implemented.