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Social work law

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This module discusses the legal context of social work, reviewing legal frameworks, principles, structures and processes, which shape and regulate social work practice. It considers how social work can use the law in a positive way, examining the value of law from the perspectives of service users, carers and professionals. The module deals with a range of legal issues related to social care and social work in three main areas: adults and the law, children and the law, and criminal justice.

What you will study

This course is made up of three separate but interrelated blocks. Due to differences in the legal frameworks for social workers in each of the four nations of the United Kingdom, you may study material that is nation specific law for the area in which you intend to practice as a social worker.

Block 1 addresses the legal context. This is essential preparatory knowledge for practice, to ensure that you are aware of the opportunities, responsibilities, and constraints of the professional social work practice environment. 

The nature of law: the definitions and classifications of law; the UK constitution; and the role of law in society. You will also explore particular issues associated with social work and the law and the position of the social worker themselves, in relation to law.

Sources of law: this includes an historical overview of the development of legal principles and provisions, and parliamentary sources of law. You will also review the legal sources and provisions underpinning professional social work, including the nature of professional accountability.

Human rights and equality law: this presents the main principles, effects, and current relevance of human rights and equality law to social work and social care practice.

Professional judgement: this allows you to consider the nature and range of professional judgement in social work practice.

The courts and the legal system: considers the structure and working of the law in a practical context, including reviewing the key legal principles and the role of the court system in the management and administration of the law. Tribunals, and the roles and duties of the various personnel in the legal system, are explored, concluding with a specific consideration of the responsibilities of social work and social workers in the courts.

Criminal justice: this incorporates an evaluation of the guiding principles of criminal justice systems in general, with an overview of the adult criminal justice system, the law regarding mentally disordered offenders, and youth justice.

Block 2 provides you with a comprehensive exploration of law relating to adults. This is set against the background of social work values and ethics, highlighting legal approaches that promote empowerment, human rights, and autonomy.

Social work with adults: you will evaluate the legal and practice elements that emerge in social work and social care with adults.

Adult care and support: you will examine the frameworks of the primary adult care statutes, and then consider the principles of the statutory responses to adult health and social care, including issues of eligibility, assessment, and the provision and regulation of services.

Adult safeguarding: you will examine the social worker’s legal duties and responsibilities, along with how professional judgement is exercised in practice.

Mental capacity: you will address from the practice context, issues of competence and the capacity to make autonomous decisions.

Mental health: you will consider the principal provisions of mental health legislation, including informal and formal treatment, and after-care of adults and children.

Asylum and immigration: This is an increasingly important area of practice and you will have the opportunity to gain a practical understanding of the factors that may inhibit or enhance wellbeing for individuals, where their legal status in the UK may be fragile or in doubt.

Block 3 provides you with a concise but comprehensive introduction to the major legal provisions concerning children. This will allow you to gain an overview of child law, the provisions for family support and child protection, and a review of the measures available and the role of the various professionals when family situations have broken down.

Social work with children: provides you with a general overview of the subject and examines the definitions of childhood and the historical emergence of policy and legislation for families and children. Parental Responsibility and children’s rights are considered, as is the central importance of the children related legislation governing and regulating much of the social work role.

Children and private law: here you will consider a general review of the responsibilities of local authorities, and then examine legal aspects of three significant areas relating to the care of children: family finances; education; and children with mental health needs.

Children and public law: you will explore the law relating to issues relating to children who come to the attention of local authorities and care agencies.

Child protection: will allow you to gain an overview of the specific legal measures for child protection.

Children and the courts: here you will consider what social workers can do when the preventative and protective systems and structures around the child have broken down, or have become severely compromised, including making representations to the court, or in Scotland through the Children’s Hearings system, to consider the facts and authorise intervention if necessary.

Permanency planning: here you will examine the legal structure of looked after children, including residential and foster care, permanency planning and adoption, and leaving care.

You will learn

This module examines the role of law in regulating the complex range of tasks and issues raised by modern social care and social work. It aims to provide you with an understanding of how legal principles have evolved and are incorporated into law and interpreted in social work policy and in social work practice.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 2 module, so you should have already completed your work at OU level 1, including developing your academic and writing skills. It is not expected that you will have prior knowledge of law in general or the legal social work frameworks, but being aware of developments in social work practice and policy, will be of great value.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

What's included

You will have access to a module website and study materials which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • course-specific module materials about social work law in the 4 UK nations
  • audio and video content
  • assignment materials and submission section
  • online tutorial access.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You'll be allocated to a tutor who will provide support and guidance throughout your studies and mark all of your assignments.

In addition you'll be allocated to a tutor group online forum led by your tutor and comprising all students within your tutor group. You will also have the opportunity to attend 6 learning events during your studies. These will be online tutorials and may be delivered by your own tutor or other tutors from the module team.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying K271 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Social work law (K271) starts once a year – in October.

This page describes the module that will start in October 2024.

We expect it to start for the last time in October 2025.

Course work includes:

3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment

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