In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Work and the Law

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Textbooks
  • Professional Associations
  • Legal Journals
  • Key Cases
  • Teaching Materials

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Social Work Social Work and the Law
Allan E. Barsky
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0024


“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.

Introductory Works

The resources listed here provide overall introductions to social work and the law, as well as to law and the legal system more generally. For basic overviews and explanations of legal terms, some of the older materials may be sufficient. For specific laws and how they apply in specific circumstances, readers should refer to the most current sources. Madden 2003 and Alexander 2003 provide two of the more recent and comprehensive introductions to social work and the law. Stein 2004 offers one of the most accessible introductions to the legal system and the philosophy of law.

  • Albert, Raymond. 2000. Law and social work practice: A legal systems approach. 2d ed. New York: Springer.

    Provides a clear explanation of the legal system, including judicial and legislative processes, as well as areas of law most relevant to social workers. Information on rapidly evolving topics such as same-sex marriage has become dated.

  • Alexander, Rudolph. 2003. Understanding legal concepts that influence social welfare policy and practice. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

    Describes laws pertaining to child welfare, mental health, professional liability. Designed to help readers understand the relevance of laws to social welfare policy and practice (with emphasis on macro issues).

  • Brayne, Hugh, and Helen Carr. 2010. Law for social workers. 11th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Comprehensive textbook on the British legal system, including laws related to a social worker’s obligations in working with the legal system, children, families, people with mental illness, homeless people, and other people who have been socially excluded.

  • Madden, Robert G. 2003. Essential law for social workers. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Provides a good overview of the legal system and uses case examples to demonstrate the application of law to various issues related to social work practice (particularly clinical/micro practice). Excellent information on child welfare, contracts, advance directives, and malpractice.

  • Martin, Peter W. 2010. Introduction to Basic Legal Citation.

    Online resource that explains norms for citing legal sources, including statutes and case law.

  • National Association of Social Workers Legal Defense Fund. Legal Issue of the Month. Washington, DC: NASW Legal Defense Fund.

    Practice-oriented series of articles to inform social workers of legal issues, rights, and responsibilities. List of titles and order information available online.

  • Schroeder, Leila Obier. 1995. The legal environment of social work. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers Press.

    Provides a good overview of the legal contexts in which social workers operate (particularly child welfare, family, mental health, and social security laws).

  • Stein, Theodore J. 2004. The role of law in social work practice and administration. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Provides social workers with a good overview of the legal system, legal terminology, and the history and philosophy of law. Chapters on specific areas of law are relatively basic, perhaps designed for social work students rather than practitioners.

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