Social Work and the Law

Allan E. Barsky

in Social Work

ISBN: 9780195389678
Published online May 2011 | | DOI:
Social Work and the Law


“Social work and the law” refers to the interface between the practice of social work and the legal system, including statutory law, case law, legal institutions (courts, prisons, etc.), and legal professionals (attorneys, judges, paralegals, forensic experts, and alternative dispute resolution professionals). Law plays a number of important roles in the practice of social work. First, from an ecological perspective, the legal system is a vital part of a client’s social environment. Many social work clients are involved in legal systems, such as child protection, criminal justice, or mental health. Social workers need to be aware of the laws that regulate each system in order to help clients navigate their way through these systems more effectively, and to be able to advocate for law reform to improve the goodness of fit between clients and their socio-legal environments. Laws also govern many relationships of interest to social work clients, including landlord/tenant, employer/employee, physician/patient, vendor/purchaser, spouse/spouse, and parent/child relationships. Thus, knowledge of the law should provide practitioners with a practical understanding of their clients’ rights and responsibilities in a broad range of social relationships. Second, hospitals, schools, social assistance, correctional institutions, mental health facilities, and other social agencies are regulated by organization-specific laws. Organization-specific laws may dictate who is eligible for services, standards for record keeping, confidentiality, and other client rights. Social workers need to understand these laws in order to ensure that their agencies comply with the laws, and to be able to advocate for changes in the law to promote greater social and economic justice. Third, the profession of social work itself is regulated by various laws. Most states have licensing or accreditation laws that regulate the practice of social work, including who may practice and what standards of practice are legally enforceable. Social workers should also be aware of malpractice (tort) laws that identify when a social worker may be legally responsible for causing harm to a client if they perform their professional duties in a manner that falls below a reasonable standard of care. Finally, some social workers practice in forensic settings, providing investigations, evaluation, expert testimony, and treatment for clients involved in court or other legal systems. Such settings include probation, parole, prison, child custody evaluation, and involuntary committal to mental health institutions.

Article.  9409 words. 

Subjects: Social Work

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