Adult Social Care 2017 LocalGovernmentLawyer 10 body for decisions”, that “it would break down the barriers between health and social care to improve working relationships and promote integration” and that there would be “faster decision making and a more integrated service for the user”. The role of the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman Finally, we looked at whether the role of the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman (LGO) in relation to adult social care was changing and whether this was impacting on how cases are being dealt with. The results showed a perhaps surprising amount of variation. More than half of respondents said complaints to the LGO had risen but the impact on levels of formal litigation is unclear – around one in four (23%) said there had been more complaints to the Ombudsman and less litigation; but 30% reported there being more complaints and more litigation. (One in ten suggested there had been fewer complaints to the LGO and more complaints, and over a third considered there to have been no obvious change.) In its Review of Adult Social Care Complaints 2015/16 the LGO’s own figures revealed a 6% increase in complaints and enquiries about all areas of adult social care over the year, taking them to 2,969. The Ombudsman upheld 58% of all cases investigated in detail, up from 55% the previous year. Whether this upward trend will continue in 2016/17 remains to be seen. Finding a way forward In light of the survey’s findings as a whole, it is no surprise that some 94% of the adult social care lawyers reported increased workloads. And a lack of resources for the legal team to respond to these pressures is clearly a major issue. “Our legal work has more than doubled. But legal budgets have not,” wrote one respondent pithily. One strategy adopted by a number of legal teams has been to seek to work more closely with frontline staff in client departments but concerns were expressed about shortages of experienced adult social care workers. One respondent highlighted a lack of budget for training and the lack of expertise in the client department as being among the factors contributing to “generally, very poor morale”. Another said adult social care was still viewed as a 'poor relation' to children's social care, arguing that “it needs to be given the same status and resources so that it can start to work proactively rather than reactively”. Nearly all of the respondents (93%) of respondents agreed that adult social care legal work was now becoming a dedicated specialism. In many cases, however, practitioners are still expected to combine their work in this field with responsibilities in, for example, child care or education law. As with any practice area in the early stages of development, it can be a challenge to develop and retain expertise. Two thirds of respondents (67%) said their employers found it difficult to recruit experienced social care lawyers. When one legal team makes a hire, it is usually at the expense of the legal department at another authority, unless a practitioner at the Bar or in a law firm can be brought across. Encouraging junior lawyers and trainees to specialise is really only likely to be a solution for the mid to long term as it may take them a while to get up to speed. You might think that all this would lead to increased instructions for the Bar and external law firms. However, the survey found 43% of respondents disagreed with the suggestion that teams were using counsel more frequently now, compared to 27% who reported that they were. The position on using law firms was even clearer: just 9% said they were turning to them more frequently, compared to 77% who said they were not. And budget imperatives are said to be changing the way departments run cases too, but not always beneficially. “Solicitors are increasingly required to attend court without counsel where rights of audience permit; although this offers an immediate saving on external spending, the cost of not being available to advise or prepare cases is often overlooked,” pointed out one respondent. Against this backdrop, and without any significant changes, the reputational and legal risks identified by the survey are surely set to grow further. Whether the new government will do anything to help remains to be seen, as adult social care seems to be an area where there are plenty of questions but few clear answers. Philip Hoult is the editor of Local Government Lawyer About the survey The survey was conducted amongst subscribers to the Local Government Lawyer newsletter from October 2016 to January 2017. 56 local authorities took part.