The importance of legal literacy in adult social care

Published: 02/11/2022

Author: Suzy Braye and Michael Preston-Shoot

Legal literacy involves connecting relevant legal rules with professional priorities and the objectives of ethical practice. 

Primary and secondary legislation, central government guidance and judicial decisions provide essential frameworks for adult social care interventions. But legal rules must be interpreted and applied in complex situations requiring the use of professional judgement.

The skills required are often referred to as legal literacy and are a key element of professional competence. Managers and senior leaders too have particular responsibilities; they must have a high level of legal literacy themselves and must create an organisational environment in which legal literacy can flourish.

Legally literate practitioners and managers will have in-depth knowledge and understanding of the powers and duties under which adult social care is provided. This must be complemented by understanding of the rights codified in the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, now incorporated into UK law through the Human Rights Act 1998. They must pay due regard to duties in the Equality Act 2010, especially the public sector equality duty as a central element in counteracting discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity in the provision of services.

It is essential that practitioners can recognise when statutory powers and duties are engaged and provide the statutory authority to meet people’s care and support needs, or to protect them from abuse and harm. Principles of administrative law require that actions taken are lawful, proportionate, reasonable and rational. Case law is helpful in understanding how these requirements can be met.

In addition, there are standards of professional conduct for practitioners registered with Social Work England (in the case of social work) and the Health and Care Professions Council (in the case of occupational therapy), and consequent obligations on employers to ensure that practitioners are able to meet the requirements of their codes of practice. For added complexity, knowledge of the law and skills in its use on their own are insufficient for good practice.

Legal literacy must be accompanied by ethical literacy – the ability to balance competing imperatives and determine a right course of action in any given situation – and by professional, relational, knowledge, emotional and organisational literacies to ensure that the needs in each unique situation are appropriately understood and responded to.

Developing and maintaining legal literacy may feel daunting, especially as the law itself is in a constant state of change and evolution. However, learning law and appreciating its possibilities, and indeed its limitations, can prove enjoyable and stimulating. Many aspects of law also support professional values that seek to promote human rights and social justice.

Suzy Braye and Michael Preston-Shoot

Suzy Braye and Michael Preston-Shoot are independent consultants in adult social care and safeguarding. Their research on self-neglect has been influential on policy and practice under the Care Act 2014. In 2020, along with colleagues from Research in Practice, they completed the first national analysis of learning from safeguarding adult reviews. Suzy is Emerita Professor of Social Work at the University of Sussex, and Michael is Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of Bedfordshire. He also chairs two safeguarding adults boards and is co-convenor of the national network of safeguarding adult board chairs.