Social Work Programs

October 13, 2011

Social Workers And Confidentiality In Court Cases

court confidentiality1 Social workers often work in close communication with the court system, whether it is through Department of Social Services, Department of Juvenile Justice, custody battles, or an array of many other agencies and situations. Many times social workers will face ethical conflicts as they attempt to treat clients in a dignified and respectful fashion, yet are obligated to share certain information with the court system that may harm the social worker-client relationship.

Social workers also serve their clients well by telling them that they are legally responsible to break confidentiality if the client is at risk of harming himself or herself or others. For example, a child in DSS custody may confide in the social worker that his or her parents have abused or neglected him or her.


In a case such as this, the social worker is obligated to communication this information as it is extremely relevant to whether or not the client will be able to return to the home. Another court-related example addresses custody issues.

A social worker meeting with divorcing parents may be ordered by the courts to share information about the social worker’s opinion of how a custody arrangement should be structured. No matter the content of the case, the social worker’s priority should be to preserve the social worker-client relationship, and should make that clear to any judge, legal counsel, or other professional working within the court system.

Due to their work with people often on a close basis, social workers often are subpoenaed to go to court. A subpoena is a legal document that summons a person to testify before the courts, no matter if he or she believes the information they can provide will be helpful or relevant. Sometimes a subpoena may order that a client’s records be submitted to the court.

Typically, recipients of subpoenas must appear in court on the day and time listed on the document or risk being charged in contempt of court. When a social worker receives a subpoena, he or she should consult with an attorney to determine whether or not the subpoena is valid and the best way to respond.

If it is determined that the social worker should appear in court, it is best to remember that the subpoena does not require that the social worker share confidential information with the courts. It is best to get written consent from a client to share information with the courts; however, this is not always possible.

The court can order the social worker to share relevant information about the client once the social worker’s attorney has communicated concerns relating to confidentiality with the client’s legal counsel. If an order is issued by the judge for the social worker to divulge otherwise confidential information, the social worker must answer all questions honestly while on the witness stand. A social worker who disobeys this court order can, again, be found in contempt of court.

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