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This research examines the legal capabilities of social care practitioners involved in a new decision-making process, ‘the kitchen table conversation’, used since the introduction of the 2015 Social Support Act in the Netherlands. This law delegates social care allocation to the local authorities, who employ social care practitioners to assess and decide upon the needs of applicants for personalised services. During the kitchen table conversation, social care practitioners, applicants and specialised services providers discuss the needs of applicants. The extent to which social care practitioners possess legal capabilities to deal with this new process is unknown. In a case study (Utrecht), data from kitchen table conversations with applicants suffering from cognitive impairment were gathered using participant observation techniques, semi-structured individual interviews and one group interview with social care practitioners, between October 2016 and May 2017. Content analysis showed the legal knowledge of social care practitioners and their awareness of the legal consequences of the kitchen table conversation. However, social care practitioners rely heavily on their interpersonal skills and on elective communication to avoid conflicts leading to legal procedures or involving their individual liability. More research is needed on the universal accessibility of social care services in the context of decentralisation.
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European Journal of Social Work
ISSN: 1369-1457 (Print) 1468-2664 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cesw20
Social support and access to justice at the kitchen
table? An assessment of the legal capabilities
of community social care professionals in the
Netherlands
Dorien Claessen, Quirine Eijkman & Majda Lamkaddem
To cite this article: Dorien Claessen, Quirine Eijkman & Majda Lamkaddem (2019): Social
support and access to justice at the kitchen table? An assessment of the legal capabilities of
community social care professionals in the Netherlands, European Journal of Social Work, DOI:
10.1080/13691457.2019.1630604
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13691457.2019.1630604
© 2019 The Author(s). Published by Informa
UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis
Group
Published online: 24 Jul 2019.
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Social support and access to justice at the kitchen table? An
assessment of the legal capabilities of community social care
professionals in the Netherlands
Hulp en toegang tot het recht aan de keukentafel? Een verkenning
van de juridische competenties van sociale professionals in
Nederland
Dorien Claessen, Quirine Eijkman and Majda Lamkaddem
Research group Access to Justice, Centre for Social Innovation, HU University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool
Utrecht), Utrecht, Netherlands
ABSTRACT
This research examines the legal capabilities of social care practitioners
involved in a new decision-making process, the kitchen table
conversation, used since the introduction of the 2015 Social Support Act in
the Netherlands. This law delegates social care allocation to the local
authorities, who employ social care practitioners to assess and decide upon
the needs of applicants for personalised services. During the kitchen table
conversation, social care practitioners, applicants and specialised services
providers discuss the needs of applicants. The extent to which social care
practitioners possess legal capabilities to deal with this new process is
unknown. In a case study (Utrecht), data from kitchen table conversations
with applicants suering from cognitive impairment were gathered using
participant observation techniques, semi-structured individual interviews
and one group interview with social care practitioners, between October
2016 and May 2017. Content analysis showed the legal knowledge of social
care practitioners and their awareness of the legal consequences of the
kitchen table conversation. However, social care practitioners rely heavily
on their interpersonal skills and on elective communication to avoid
conicts leading to legal procedures or involving their individual liability.
More research is needed on the universal accessibility of social care
services in the context of decentralisation.
SAMENVATTING
Dit onderzoek focust op de juridische competenties van sociale professionals
diebetrokkenzijnbijhetkeukentafelgesprek, een manier van werken
die is geïntroduceerd met de transities in het sociaal domein. Sinds de
implementatie van de Wet maatschappelijke ondersteuning (Wmo 2015)
zijn Nederlandse gemeenten verplicht onderzoek te doen naar de
persoonlijke situatie van mensen die zich melden met een
ondersteuningsvraag. De wet delegeert de toekenning van
maatschappelijke zorg aan de lokale overheden, die sociale professionals
KEYWORDS
Decentralisation; legal
capabilities; social care
professionals; access to
justice; 2015 Social Support
Act
TREFWOORDEN
Decentralisatie; juridische
competenties; sociale
professionals; toegang tot
het rechtmWet
maatschappelijke
ondersteuning 2015
© 2019 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License (http://
creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
CONTACT Majda Lamkaddem majda.lamkaddem@hu.nl Centre for Social Innovation, Research group Access to Justice,
Hogeschool Utrecht, P.O. Box 85397, Utrecht 3508 AJ, Netherlands
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF SOCIAL WORK
https://doi.org/10.1080/13691457.2019.1630604
inzetten om de behoeften aan maatschappelijke ondersteuning van cliënten
te onderzoeken. Deze lokale professionals spelen tijdens dit proces een
belangrijke rol bij de toekenning van de maatwerk oplossing. Tijdens het
keukentafelgesprek worden de behoeften van cliënten in kaart gebracht,
door de sociale professionals, in samenspraak met de cliënten en
gespecialiseerde diensten. De mate waarin sociale professionals over de
benodigde juridische kennis, vaardigheden en houdingsaspecten
beschikken om dit proces vorm te geven is onbekend. Een case study
(Utrecht) rond keukentafelgesprekken met cliënten met cognitieve
beperkingen heeft plaatsgevonden. Aan de hand van participerende
observaties, semi-gestructureerde individuele- en groepsinterviews zijn
gegevens verzameld tussen oktober 2016 en mei 2017. Content analyse
laat zien dat juridische kennis van sociale professionals en hun bewustzijn
van de juridische gevolgen van het keukentafelgesprek aanwezig zijn.
Desalniettemin leunen sociale professionals ook sterk op hun
interpersoonlijke en communicatieve vaardigheden teneinde conicten te
vermijden die mogelijk tot bezwaarprocedures zouden kunnen leiden. Meer
onderzoek is daarom nodig naar de toegankelijkheid van maatschappelijke
diensten in de context van decentralisatie in het sociale domein.
Introduction
Decentralisation eorts have been characterising the social domain since the second half of the twen-
tieth century throughout Western Europe (Minas, Wright, & Berkel, 2012) with local authorities such as
municipalities becoming active agents in health and social care provisions (Petrasek, Tom, & Archer,
2002; Saltman, 2007). In the Netherlands, a new wave of changes aecting, among others, social ser-
vices came into action with the introduction of the 2015 Social Support Act (Wmo 2015, hereafter the
new Act,n.d.). Under the banner of the participative society, the new Act was introduced along with
further decentralizations of (social) care, employment and youth care services.
The new Act is relatively new legislation in the Netherlands, but similar legislation exists in the United
Kingdom through the Care Act 2014 (The National Archives, 2014). Both Acts fundamentally reframe the
statutory duties of local authorities. Their tasks have changed from arranging services for specicclient
groups to promoting peoples wellbeing, i.e. to enable them to remain independent. Therefore, local
authorities have to assess the needs of clients, often suering cognitive impairments and physical dis-
abilities, who might require social care. For the rst time personalisation is placed on a statutory footing
in both countries, providing those who are eligible with a legal entitlement to (a personal budget for)
care and support. Both Acts introduce the right to an assessment for adults in need of support (Woittiez,
Eggink, Putman, & Ras, 2018). In practice, social care professionals execute this assessment while having
to balance the needs of clients against the resources available to the local communities.
The assessment of the clients needs, which has come to be known in the Netherlands as the kitchen
table conversation, is to reveal whether generally accessible services (such as activities in a community
centre) and the deployment of the usual support from their family, friends and acquaintances, is
sucient to help a client cope with his/her limitations (van Hees, Horstman, Jansen, & Ruwaard,
2018). In case those community services are inadequate or insucient, clients can apply for personal-
ised services, such as home care, a home accessibility improvement or specialised support by caregivers.
The kitchen table conversation
Each council implements the kitchen table conversation in its own way. In many cities, social district
teams have been set up for these assessments on behalf of the council, which is the administrative
authority. Since the actual decision-making is often outsourced, it is not always clear to applicants
and their representatives who formally decides on the allocation of personalised services: the
2D. CLAESSEN ET AL.
council or the social district team (Eijkman, 2017). The composition of the social district team varies
per district and council. The underlying organisational idea is that the group of professionals in the
district team should together possess relevant expertise to address the needs of the geographical
area, or district, in which they work. Professionals with a social work background account for a
large part of the stang of the district teams in the Netherlands (Arum & Van den Enden, 2018).
The assessment of the clients needs in kitchen table conversation-settings is a new task for which
professionals with a social work background have not been specically trained during their formal
education. The word kitchen table conversationmay suggest a homely cheerfulness and a non-com-
mittal attitude. However, the content of this discussion largely determines the personalised solution
and the professionals act in areas that directly aect people and their rights, such as assistance,
support and participation.
On the one hand, the transition to personalised care and support has given social professionals
more room for manoeuvre. They can use their expertise to nd solutions that suit the clients
living conditions, without protocols seriously restricting their leeway. At the same time, personalisa-
tion within the new Act leads to new accountability requirements. For example, on what basis does a
social care practitioner come to a decision on the content of a personalised solution? Moreover, the
increasing emphasis on personalisation is changing the legal relationship between municipalities and
citizens. According to the Dutch Social Domain Transition Commission, that it is precisely the funda-
mental change between government and citizens that has so far received too little attention (Tran-
sitiecommissie Sociaal Domein, 2016).
At the kitchen table, the changing legal relationship between the government and citizens is actually
established by social care professionals in the district team. They are wearing two dierent hats here:
they are both care provider and gatekeeper to the access to the resources under the new Act. This
raises the question as to whether this group of social care professionals have the required knowledge,
skills and attitude to work with the new legislation and regulations, as a part of their legal capability.
The legal capability framework
Until now, research and education have focused mainly on general support and supervisory competen-
cies of social care professionals, such as the skilfulness to work with individuals, systems and groups (Jörg,
Boeije, & Schrijvers, 2005). Decision-making studies in the United Kingdom didntfocusspecically on the
role of law but rather on the use of knowledge more broadly (for example; McDonald, Postle, & Dawson,
2008;Braye,Preston-Shoot,&Wigley,2013). Research into the social care professionalslegal competen-
cies in attaining access to social support under the new Act is lacking. Do social care professionals recog-
nise the legal implications of their practices? How do they deal with the accountability requirements in
the context of the new Act? Especially for citizens who are less self-sucient when it comes to access to
justice, such as applicants with cognitive impairment, the way in which local professionals understand
and implement legislation and regulations might inuence the accessibility of social services.
The public legal education evaluation framework (Collard, Deeming, Wintersteiger, Jones, & Sear-
geant, 2011) is an analytical framework developed by the Bristol University Personal Finance Research
Centre and Law for Life to evaluate legal capability. Although developed for its application to citizens,
this framework lends itself to be adapted to those local social care professionals who are (also) acting
as care givers and who support clients navigating through the legal aspects of the new Act. This task
of social care professionals within the social district teams requires legal capabilities. The public legal
education evaluation framework distinguishes four domains in which legal capabilities can be at play:
(1) Recognising and framing the legal dimensions of issues and situations;
(2) Finding out more about legal dimensions of issues and situations;
(3) Dealing with law-related issues;
(4) Engaging and inuencing.
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF SOCIAL WORK 3
Each of these domains has four to seven indicators, as displayed in Table 1. The legal capability of
citizens, or, in the case of the social district teams, the social care professionals, can be evaluated
based on those indicators. The underlying idea is that individuals with more legal capabilities will
be able to better navigate legal situations and therefore realise access to justice.
The present research aims at exploring the legal capabilities of social care professionals when
dealing with the new Act during and around the kitchen table conversation, in the light of their
increased room for manoeuvre.
The research question guiding the present study is as follows:
Which legal capabilitiesdo social care professionals in social district teams in the area of Utrecht, the
Netherlands, use in their assessment of applicants with cognitive impairment?
The following sub-questions will be answered:
What knowledge of the procedure under the new Act do local social care professional display?
(knowledge)
What legal skills do local social care professionals use in the realization of access to the resources
under the new Act? (skills)
How do local social care professionals relate to the procedure under the new Act? (attitude)
Methods
Design
This research was conducted using a case-study design, dened as an empirical inquiry that inves-
tigates a contemporary phenomenon in depth and within its real-life context especially when the
boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident(Yin, 2003, p. 18). In the
present study, the case is a set of three kitchen table conversations taking place in and around
the area of Utrecht, involving individuals with cognitive impairments applying for a customised sol-
ution at one social district team. Kitchen table conversations were selected by the social care pro-
fessionals themselves, based on the following indicators provided by the researcher: each must be
about an application for a personalised service by a client with cognitive limitations (applicants).
This demarcation made it possible to specically observe the social care professionalsdealings
with people with similar limitations that restrict their legal capabilities, such as dementia.
Participant observations, individual interviews and one group interview were used as data collec-
tion tools. Participant observations and individual interviews were related to the three aforemen-
tioned kitchen table conversations, and a team meeting during which one kitchen table
conversation was discussed. All kitchen table conversations took place between October 2016 and
February 2017. The participant observation phase had two main goals: providing insights and knowl-
edge of the contents and process of the kitchen table conversations, as well as providing input for the
cases discussed during the subsequent interviews (individual and group). The group interviews
yielded general information about the application procedure, which was also used as input for the
individual interviews, and information on the attitude and skills of social care practitioners concern-
ing the legal aspects of the new Act. The individual interviews were built up around cases of the
kitchen table conversations in order to yield insights into the knowledge, skills and attitudes of
the involved social care professionals.
Data collection
Participant observations
In participant observation, researchers take part in activities in the natural environment of the sub-
jects (Spradley, 1980). The researcher (DC) attended personally all three kitchen table conversations
as a participant observer. Elements from the general procedure under the new Act (see Figure 1) and
indicators from the public legal education evaluation framework (Collard et al., 2011) served as an
4D. CLAESSEN ET AL.
Table 1. Legal capability: the four key domains for evaluation (developed by Law for Life and Bristol University Personal Finance Research Centre; Collard et al., 2011, p. 12).
Recognising and
framing the
legal
dimensions of
issues and
situations
Aware of the
concept of rights
and obligations
and can
recognise when
the law applies
to a situation
Able to frame a
situation in terms of
the law and
distinguish
between civil and
criminal legal issues
Aware of the basic
legal principles
that underpin the
legal system and
can apply them to
issues
Has the communication skills
and condence to explain
a law-related issue and ask
and answer questions
about it
Finding out
more about
the legal
dimensions of
issues and
situations
Able to nd out
what rights and
obligations
apply in a
particular
situation
Able to nd out about
basic legal
processes and
procedures that
apply to particular
situations
Able to nd out
about the steps
involved in
dealing with a
law-related issue
Able to assess the dierent
sources of information
about a law-related issue
Able to assess risks and
opportunities, and
decide when they can
deal with a law-related
issue themselves and
when they might need
expert advice
Able to nd out
about dierent
sources of advice
and to choose one
which will meet
their needs
Able to keep a good
record of events,
information and
correspondence, and
keep track of
evidence
Dealing with
law-related
issues
Able to apply
relevant
information or
advice that has
been obtained
Able to decide what a
satisfactory
outcome to a law-
related issue looks
like for them
Able to anticipate
and plan ahead,
to identify
opportunities and
obstacles
Able to identify and assess
dierent courses of action
for dealing with a law-
related issue (which may
include doing nothing),
then plan and follow
through an appropriate
course of action
Has communication and
interpersonal skills to
manage relationships
and deal with the other
parties involved
Has personal skills
and attributes
such as
condence, self-
esteem,
motivation,
calmness to
persevere
throughout the
process
Engaging and
inuencing
Aware of the
impact of the
law and legal
institutions on
their lives and
on the lives of
others
Aware of relevant
processes,
structures and
institutions that can
be used to inuence
and participate in
the decision-
making in order to
achieve change
Able to critically
assess situations
in order to weigh
up opportunities
Has communication and
interpersonal skills
necessary to engage and
inuence
Has personal skills and
attributes such as
condence, self-belief
and strength to eect
change either
individually or
collectively
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF SOCIAL WORK 5
observation list. Kitchen table conversations were audio recorded and observation notes were taken
in all cases. These recordings were made with the permission of both the social care professional and
the applicant to a personalised solution, and with a signed a condentiality statement from the
researcher (DC). The researchers were aware that applicants, due to cognitive limitations, might
not have fully understood the implications of giving consent. Therefore, the social care professional
reached informed consent beforehand and the researcher (DC) asked for consent during the obser-
vation. Ethical issues where discussed within the research team according to the conduct statement
of the Dutch Universities (VSNU, 2014).
Group interview
A group interview took place with three social care professionals from the social district team. One of
them was involved in one of the kitchen table conversations. This group interview yielded infor-
mation on the attitude and skills of social care practitioners concerning the legal aspects of the
new Act. This interview (1,5 h, February 2017) was held using a topic list based on the legal procedure
of the new Act.
Individual interviews
Five individual interviews were conducted with 4 social care professionals involved in the selected
kitchen table conversations (n= 3) or in other kitchen table conversations (n= 1). One respondent
was interviewed twice. During the interviews, respondents were asked about their own practices
during the kitchen table conversation, in order to nd out about their attitudes and skills concerning
the legal aspects of the new Act. At the end of the interview, the procedure under the new Act was
presented in order to test their knowledge (see Figure 1).
Participants
Tables 2 and 3give an overview of the respondents of individual and group interviews involved in
this case study. General characteristics of the respondents are also displayed.
Figure 1. Procedure under the new Act: from notication to decision. Schulinck / Wolters Kluwer Nederland B.V.
Source: Wet maatschappelijke ondersteuning 2015 (2014).
6D. CLAESSEN ET AL.
Data analysis
This exploratory study used the public legal education evaluation framework (hereafter: legal capa-
bility framework) (Collard et al., 2011) as a guiding framework for analysing the data. The four key
domains were further dened as competencies, based on the work of Roe (2002), who relates com-
petencies in the professional eld to the necessary knowledge, attitudes and skills, which can be
learnt and acquired, mostly through on-the-job training. Competencies are expressed in (concrete)
behaviour, and related to a task or role within an organisation (Roe, 2002). The four legal dimensions
of the legal capability framework are phrased as active verbs, and lean themselves to a competency
interpretation. The four competencies and related legal capabilities (knowledge, skills, attitudes) were
used to code the transcripts of the group and individual interviews. Observations recordings were as
well coded using the same framework.
Additionally, the specic knowledge of the procedure under the new Act was tested based on the
infographic displayed hereunder (Figure 1). The related set of questions was included in the interview
guide used for the individual interviews. Topics such as the clients right to independent support,
knowledge of legal deadlines and the possibility for clients to object were included.
Both the infographic and legal capability framework served as a framework for the data analysis,
which was conducted in an inductive manner, using content analysis. In order to increase objectivity
in the data analysis, this phase involved three researchers (DC, QE, ML).
The methodological approach and results of the analyses were submitted to a sounding board
group, which included two experts in the eld of the 2015 Social Support Act and social work (mr
dr M.F. Vermaat & dr E. Mudde).
Findings
Knowledge of the general legal procedure
Social care professionals were generally aware of the procedure under the new Act. They were aware
of the right to independent advocacy. Also, the statutory deadline to complete the examination
within six weeks after the clientsrst contact was a well-known fact, as well as the fact that the
client must be informed in writing of a decision within two weeks of an application for a personalised
Table 2. Overview of respondents to the individual interviews and related kitchen table conversations.
Age
category
Work experience in
Social Work (years)
Kitchen table
conversation date Attendees Application Decision
Interview
date
Resp. 1 4050 1520 Nov2016 applicant
generalist
researcher
Home care Granted Nov2016
Resp. 2 3040 1015 Nov2016 applicant
informal carer
generalist
researcher
Day care Granted Dec2016
Resp. 3 4050 510 Jan2017 applicant
informal carer
generalist
researcher
Day care Granted Jan2017
Resp. 4 3040 510 N/A N/A N/A N/A May 2017
Table 3. Overview of participants to the group interview.
Age category Work experience in Social Work (years)
Respondent A 4050 510
Respondent B 4050 1520
Respondent C 4050 1520
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF SOCIAL WORK 7
service has been submitted. The work processes are laid down in descriptions developed jointly by
the council and the district teams. An IT system was set up to monitor the legal deadlines. However,
the possibility for clients to submit a personal plan did not come up in the interviews nor during the
kitchen table conversations.
All respondents were aware of the possibility for clients to appeal with the council against the dis-
trict teams decision. Five out of six social care professionals involved in the individual or group inter-
view(s) knew of the possibility for clients to demand a periodic penalty payment if the statutory
deadline is not met. In one individual interview with a social care professional, this subject was
not raised. Two social care professionals referred to local ordinances of the municipality, such as
quality criteria for personalised care, or maximum taris for care providers, as important to their
work, but this was not mentioned by the other social care professionals. Several respondents gener-
ally referred to case law as guiding principles in the provision of customised services. Two team
members with social-legal training had the task of keeping their team informed of changes in legis-
lation and regulations. They occasionally meet with council ocials who explain to them the ordi-
nance and policy rules.
When looking at the legal capability framework, the knowledge elements displayed by the social
care professionals are mostly related to the competencies Recognising and framing legal issues
(referring to the legal procedure, knowledge of deadlines and their legal consequences) and
Finding out more about legal issues(colleagues with the specic mandate of keeping track of
changes in regulations). The competency Dealing with legal issuesis in turn negatively illustrated
by the fact that the possibility for clients to submit a personal plan did not come up in the interviews
nor during the kitchen table discussions.
Legal skills at the kitchen table
The job prole of district team social care professionals does not directly refer to legal skills (Reken-
kamer Amersfoort, 2017). Social care professionals acquire the latter mainly from each other. As a
social care professional puts it: You contaminate each other with information(Individual interview,
December 2016).
Local social care professionals generally believe that the content of a decision following a kitchen
table conversation is inuenced by several factors, including the way the application is worded,
regardless of the actual nature of the application. According to them, framing an application
within the legal context of the new Act, using the adequate lexicon, is a determining factor for an
application to be granted. This comes to the fore in the following fragment from the group interview:
Social care professional (SP) 1 You are sent back sometimes, with a simple do some additional research. And
sometimes you think: I will really have to pull out all the stops to win them [col-
leagues and the team leader] all over, and you have a decision within 5
minutes.
SP2 It is a surprise, every time again. [Laughing]
SP1 Yes, and the weakest side of it [decision-making on personalised care]to me is
that it depends on the way we put it into words.
SP2 And on the person [professional]who presents it, whether the client gets what
they need.
SP1 Or what they want.
SP2 Yes, it keeps you on your toes, yes.
SP1 Yes, so I nd that quite tough.
(Group interview, February 2017)
Social care professionals are aware of the fact that determining the content of a decision might be a
matter of subjectivity; however, the outcome might be inuenced by the skills of the professional,
which leads to feelings of pressure to achieve the best outcome for the applicant. As a social care
professional puts it, It is about using your knowledge, experience and intuition to come to a
8D. CLAESSEN ET AL.
customised solution and somehow making it compatible with the law(on the way to a kitchen table
discussion, in late November 2016).
In an interview, a social care professional states:
It is important to already mention self-reliance and participation in the conclusion [of the action plan]. () Well, if
you put it like: on the basis of our assessment, it has become clear that you are not self-reliant and cannot par-
ticipate independently because of these and those limitations. If you dont get it, then this, this and that happens,
and that is why it is necessary for these and those reasons that you get specialist support. Then you have sub-
stantiated within the framework of the new Act why you grant someone something. (Individual interview, Decem-
ber 2016)
This exemplies how social care professionals use legal skills in order to have their decisions phrased
in ways that make them compatible with the law. What strikes at this point is that the new Act is not
seen as the departure point, or the guideline, on which a decision should be based. On the contrary
they see it as a posteriori set of requirements they need to meet after having reached a decision
mostly based on practice or experience. However, it seems that social care professionals experience
a lack of guidelines, tting the practice, on which to base their decisions. In our case study, these gaps
were lled by using two strategies, which we named searching for protocolsand team reliance.
Searching for protocolsis a strategy implying setting new informal protocols to standardize the
decisions and daily actions of social care professionals around the kitchen table conversations. Within
the observed district team settings, the researcher noticed the presence of A4-printed lists, laminated
in clear plastic, in the conference room. These lists contained seven working principles, established in
partnership with the local authorities. Items such as Early intervention and prevention come rst
were included, as well as Refer as eectively as possible (if additional care is required).
This need for practice-based criteria and protocols is also exemplied by the interview extract
below, with a social care professional about setting a personal care budget for a client:
SP ()those people are asking for a personal care budget for 28 hours/week
of care and support for a family member. () Based on what they
provide, we really cannot oer more than 20.5 hours.
RHow do you calculate the total number of hours?
SP The clients have written down what they do. We look into whatever we
can reasonably decide, and which components come under usual care.
() Just like home care, everything is itemised in a number of minutes.
We simply add them all up.
RAre there any standards for allocating or calculating that time?
SP No, and that is the annoying thing. A colleague [nurse]knows this from
her experience in personal care because she worked for a home care pro-
vider. You just stick to the number of hours. Yes, why do things dierently,
those times have been set for a good reason. With hours of [personal]
support [however], you have no grip whatsoever.
(Individual interview, December 2016)
Team relianceis another strategy used by the district team members. Members of the district team
value the team-baseddecision. One of them says:
What I like about it is: here [in this district team] is the working method: you present your case and you are not the
only one to judge. As soon as I have presented the case, it is owned by all of us and whatever happens next is
simply a team-based decision. (Group interview, February 2017)
Another example of professionals choosing for the Team reliancestrategy is given in the following
section:
The social care professional starts by explaining to an elderly client and her son that the visit is meant
to see whether the decision on her daytime care should be extended. The client says that she certainly
hopes so, because the daytime care came as a godsendafter a period in which she lost all her interest
in life. The lady does not answer the social care professionals questions unambiguously; she narrates a
range of events in her life. The social care professional listens attentively and regularly puts in a question
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF SOCIAL WORK 9
for the purpose of her examination. After 45 min, she indicates that it is clear to her that the lady would
love to continue to visit the daytime care centre. She explains that it is not only up to her, but that the
decision is made jointly with colleagues. She promises to call the lady straight after their meeting two
days later.
Afterwards, she tells the researcher that she had rather not left the client in uncertainty. The client was
worrying at that point, whereas it was perfectly clear that the term of the decision should be extended.
Yet, she stood by her actions: she believed it was important for the decision to be team made. The social
care professional chose to leave the client in the dark in order to share the responsibility with her col-
leagues. From a care providers perspective, she would rather have informed the client immediately.
(Kitchen table conversation, November 2016)
In the policy that arose in partnership with the council, this form of consultation with the team
aims to create the opportunity to share knowledge and experience at case level and learn from
one another. This would facilitate the establishment of a standardised assessment framework. For
this reason, social care professionals often conduct visits in pairs so that they can use their individual
expertise to assess a request for support. This rule seems to be dierent for applications for domestic
care; it is usually the social care professional who makes the decision independently following the
interview with the client.
The ndings on the legal skills displayed by the social care professionals can mainly be related to
the competency Dealing with law-related issuesfrom the legal capability framework. Those skills
lead logically to the display of this competency, for example in the case of social care professionals
using their legal skills in order to have their decisions phrased in ways that make them compatible
with the law, or to adopt strategies to deal with law-related issues such as team-reliance.
Attitude about the legal aspects
The attitude of social care professionals towards the legal aspects of their work became clear when
talking about potential objection procedures against written decisions launched by clients or their
informal carers. Such a procedure may lead to liability requirements for the professional practices
of social care professionals. As one social care professional puts it:
We do not let ourselves [in our daily work] be guided by legalities. You only have to deal with those when the
client disagrees with you. So, the legalities only come up when a complaint or objection is in the making.
Then, you suddenly become aware: Oh, I do actually have to justify it all somehow. What do the bylaw and
the additional rules set by the council actually say? Does what we say hold up in court? (Individual interview,
December 2016)
When it appears that clients might object to the decision because an agreement cannot be
reached, the social care professionals might consult the councils legal department to phrase the
decision with the proper legal substantiation.
Social care professionals showed their awareness of their legal accountability, but also clearly
stated that legal aspects were not guiding their daily practice. Instead, those were seen as an
additional requirement they had to meet, especially in case an objection procedure would occur.
Social care professionals also let the circumstances and perceived well-being of their clients
prevail over the legal aspects of their work, for instance when it concerned the right to information
of their clients. The following description of a kitchen table conversation exemplies this:
During a kitchen table conversation, a social care professional chose to give hardly any information
about the procedure of conversation to an elderly lady with early dementia. In the interview that followed,
the social care professional explained he had restricted the information on purpose, as this would in his
opinion confuse the client. Moreover, he thought it would stand in the way of developing trust. (Kitchen
table conversation, January 2017).
When a care plan is established by a social care professional, based on the kitchen table conversa-
tion and discussed in the team, it is submitted to the client, including the proposed personalised
10 D. CLAESSEN ET AL.
solution. When including a personalised service, the client can apply for it by signing the report with
agreed, whereafter the report counts as ocial application. However, if the plan concludes that the
applicant is not entitled to the service, he/she can sign with seen. The applicant then can still apply
for a decree against which objection and appeal are possible (Marseille & Vermaat, 2017). One of the
interviewed social care professionals mentioned that this distinction and its implications are certainly
not understoodby the clients, nor by the team members. In practice, social care professionals did not
nd out more about the dierence between both signatures and its consequences, mainly because
clients hardly asked questions about it.
Strengthening the clients legal position through independent advocacy is hardly mentioned
during the interviews. When asked explicitly during the group interview, one social care professional
states that this is something clients are entitled to, and makes the following observation:
And that can also be very helpful to us, them being there. They provide additional information; MEE Client
Support [independent advocacy organisation] sometimes knows things we dont know, that can be useful.
And it can also reassure the client that someone is accompanying them, making the whole process run more
smoothly. It can also work against us sometimes, that there is someone sitting next to you and you think:
well, this person is does not bring us any joy, digging their heels in. So, it diers. (Group interview, February 2017)
This example also shows that the social care professional is aware of the clients rights. The impor-
tance is mainly motivated by a smoothoutcome of the kitchen table conversation. According to
the social care professional, an independent advocacy provider who diers from the social care pro-
fessional in their idea of the form of personalisation is not helpful here. This seems to make for a
paradox at the kitchen table: social care professionals, on the one hand, stimulate personal strength
through support but appear to encourage the clients legal power to a lesser extent.
SP I have only had to deal with it [Penalty Payments (Overdue Decisions) Act]
once within our team. You now try to be as transparent as possible to
people and explain: times are busy, we are doing everything we can to
meet that deadline, but if we cant, we can decide retroactively. Then
you nd that a lot of people are okay with it all.
R And as long as people agree, it is allowed?
SP It is a way to avoid problems, really. Yes, whether it is allowed, thatsa
dierent matter [laughing], but it is a trick to prevent people making
claims to the Penalty Payments Act.
RDo you inform people that they can...
SP No. Until recently, I had never even heard of these penalty payments. Yes,
and I do think, like, I am not going to make people wiser than necessary.
(Individual interview, December 2016)
The social care professional in this example has legal knowledge that she does not use for the
purpose of strengthening the clients legal position, but for the position of the district team and
the council that is formally responsible for meeting the legal deadlines.
Social care professionals seem to be partly aware of several strict conditions such as the clients
right to information, the possibility of independent advocacy and the possibility for clients to
appeal to the written decision of the council. This awareness does not mean that they consistently
act on it. Considerations as to the clients abilities and the conviction of their own professional dili-
gence inuence the way in which they are prepared to use available legal knowledge. They either
act in the legal interests of the client or to strengthen the position of the district team.
When relating the attitudes of the social care professionals to the competencies underlying the
legal capability framework, these ndings show a relationship with the competencies Dealing
with law-related issuesand Engaging and inuencing. However, in both cases, these attitudes
seem to undermine the related competencies. The general view that legal aspects are an additional
requirement to comply with, and not a guide for the daily practice, seem to be at odd with the com-
petency Dealing with law-related issues. This competency would only be displayed in case there is
no other option, and not made an integral part of the daily social work practice. Likewise,
EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF SOCIAL WORK 11
respondents stimulate personal strength, but do not encourage the client legal power to the same
extent. They allow the perceived well-being of their clients to prevail above their right to information.
These attitudes lead to a low Engaging and inuencingcompetency in terms of the legal capability
framework.
Conclusion
The present research focused on the legal capabilities that social care professionals in the Nether-
lands use around new legislation, when assessing the needs of applicants with cognitive impairment.
Comparable to the Care Act 2014 in the United Kingdom, the 2015 Social Support Act reframes the
statutory duties of the local authorities and introduces the right to an assessment for adults in need of
support, placing personalisation on a statutory footing for the rst time. This is an essential dierence
with the previous situation, where social care practitioners used formalised protocols and guidelines
on which to base a decision for social support. These are being dismissed, making room for
personalisation.
During the observations and interviews, qualitative data were gathered on general knowledge of
the new Act procedure, and on the displayed skills and attitudes of social care practitioners in order to
deal with the legal aspects of the new Act. Our analyses showed that general knowledge of the pro-
cedure and statutory deadlines of the new Act was present among local social care practitioners, as
well as their awareness of the right of clients to be informed, their right to independent advocacy and
their right to appeal against a written decision by the council as responsible administrative authority.
The legal skills of the local social care practitioners were mostly displayed through their endeavour
to formulate decisions and applications using terms that would t the new Act. These were not part of
the skill set of social care practitioners to begin with, but were acquired on-the-job. Generally, they
tended to see the new Act as an additional requirement of their role, which they had to deal with, but
which was not providing the necessary guidelines they needed to base decisions upon. The experi-
enced lack of guidelines and protocols was dealt with by relying on the district team, and by looking
for team-made decisions about individual cases. The second strategy to counter this lack of guide-
lines was to reinvent local, informal protocols in order to standardise the decisions and daily
actions around the kitchen table conversations.
On the attitude of social care professionals regarding the new Act, and how social care pro-
fessionals relate to the legal application procedure, results showed that, even if the knowledge
and awareness of the procedure and the rights of clients was present, this legal knowledge was
not necessarily used primarily for strengthening the clients legal position, but also to defend the pos-
ition of the district team and of the individual social care professional. Considerations as to the clients
abilities and the conviction of their own professional diligence inuenced the way in which they were
prepared to use available legal knowledge.
As a local case study, focusing on clients with cognitive impairment, the results cannot be gener-
alised and might not represent the legal capabilities displayed by social care professionals in other
district teams in the Netherlands, nor represent the legal capabilities displayed by social care pro-
fessionals when dealing with other types of clients. Moreover, the public legal education evaluation
framework used in this study was applied for the rst time to map out the legal capabilities of pro-
fessionals rather than citizens. Further amendments to this framework are needed to develop a better
analytical frame for assessing the legal capabilities of professionals. This rst application of the legal
capability framework to the work of social care professionals made clear that although competencies
can be theoretically distilled from the framework, the extent to which these competencies as dis-
played by social care professionals are benecial to the legal empowerment of clients is still an
object of discussion and would need to be empirically tested.
The data were qualitative and the analyses involved the judgement, interpretation and therefore
subjectivity of the researchers. This methodological limitation was partly compensated by relying on
a team of researchers and setting up a sounding board group.
12 D. CLAESSEN ET AL.
Despite these limitations, we can conclude that although the institutional context of the district
teams contributes to a humanised legal relationshipbetween the government and citizens (Vonk,
Klingenberg, Munneke, Tollenaar, & Vonk, 2016), two main unintended consequences can be out-
lined. First, the disappearance of formal protocols and guidelines is an invitation to reinvent those
for social care professionals who lack standardised guidelines to base decisions upon. Second,
daily practice shows that strengthening the legal position of clients is not necessarily the priority
of social care professionals when applying their legal skills. Social care professionals seem to pick
and chooselegal idiom in order to have their decisions phrased in ways that make them compatible
with the law, local government policy and clientsneeds. These ndings are aligned with the ndings
of Braye et al. (2013) on the complex and nuancedway social care professionals incorporate legal
rules in their decision-making. References to the law are more likely to be implicitthan explicit
and the absence of legal references is a striking feature in their narratives (Braye et al., 2013).
While applying the new Act, social care professionals refer to the law, but mostly in an instrumental
manner (i.e. when they cannot avoid it and/or or need it).
However, it can be argued that social care professionals need a better understanding of the law to
defend their use of powers and duties on the local level. The ability to articulate practice knowledge
more broadly is essential to accountability and quality service delivery (Osmond & OConner, 2004),
especially in the face of a complex, messy reality(Zacka, 2017) of balancing their clientsneeds
against the resources available to the local authorities.
Our ndings suggest that higher levels of legal literacy are needed, reaching further than mere
knowledge of the law. Emphasis on attitudes and skills must be considered to the development of
mature legal literacy(Braye et al., 2013) and rmly embedded in a strong sense of justice as the cor-
nerstone of Social Work (IFSW & IASSW, 2014) in order to strengthen the clientslegal position.
Acknowledgement
Our gratitude goes to the sounding board, mr dr Vermaat and dr Mudde, for reviewing the manuscript from their exper-
tise, both methodological and in the eld of the New Act 2015. Our thanks go as well to mrs. Prikken MSc., Triangle Com-
munity Services, London, for her helpful comments on the text of the manuscript.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.
Funding
This study was self-funded by the Research Centre for Social Innovation of the University of Applied Sciences Utrecht.
Notes on contributors
Dorien Claessen (Msc) is an anthropologist, researcher and lecturer Social Work at the Utrecht University of Applied
Sciences. Her research focusses on the link between Human Rights and Social Work and the role of local social
professionals.
Quirine Eijkman (Phd.) is chair of the Research group Access2Justice at the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences and
Deputy President of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights. This article is written in her personal capacity.
Majda Lamkaddem (Phd.) is a sociologist, senior researcher and lecturer at the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences. Her
eld of research encompasses social, cultural and nancial factors at play in the universal accessibility to Justice.
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14 D. CLAESSEN ET AL.
... Similar to social services in other European countries, the social care landscape in the Netherlands has changed drastically over the last few years (Martinelli et al. 2017;O'Cinneide 2014;Claessen et al. 2019). Following a series of decentralizations and austerity measures, social workers in the Netherlands may now find themselves on the one hand trying to realize the best possible care for their clients while on the other hand dealing with new laws and policy expectations focused on self-reliance and diminished access to specialist care. ...
... In addition to differences in knowledge about care requirements, social workers may also differ in their knowledge of law and policy (Claessen et al. 2019). It is clear from the way in which social workers describe how they deal with the limited access to specialist care that it is important to have a sound knowledge of law and policy in order to be able to arrange access to specialist care for clients. ...
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