The Government have announced that 12-15 year olds are going to be offered one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. BBC News reported today that ‘Parents will be asked to give consent for the jab. But if a child and parent are of opposing views and the child is considered competent to decide, the child will have the final say’.
Where the parents of a child are married, or are both on the child’s birth certificate, then they share parental responsibility (this can also be obtained by court order). Any court orders determining where the child lives (Child Arrangements order) does not change this. Parental responsibility includes being consulted on medical decisions, therefore the option of having the COVID vaccine will need to not only be discussed with the child but both parents, including those of separated families. The news report suggests however that if one parent consents and the other doesn’t the child will be able to make the final decision. This does on the face of it put a lot of pressure on the child, especially where their parents are of opposing views.
For a child to consent to medical treatment the legal threshold is that they must be Gillick competent (sometimes known as the Fraser guidelines). The guidance comes from a case in the 1980’s which looked at whether medical professionals should be able to give contraceptive treatment to under 16’s without parental consent. The guidance is still good law today. The test is used to determine whether a child has the maturity to make their own decisions and understand the implications of them.
The assessment of Gillick competence includes the following.
- The child’s age, maturity and mental capacity
- Their understanding of the issue and what it involves – including advantages, disadvantages and potential long-term impact.
- Their understanding of the risks, implications and consequences that may arise from their decision
- How well they understand any advice or information they have been given
- Their understanding of alternative options, if available
- Their ability to explain a rationale around their reasoning and decision making
However, that consent may not be valid if the child is being pressured or influenced by someone else. The test may have a different outcome on the same child depending on the question being posed, just because they are competent to make a decision over one matter, does not mean they can automatically make a decision regarding another. Where parents cannot agree on a decision concerning a child’s medical treatment one of many issues we would discuss is Gillick competence. As a last resort there is the option of court proceedings for a specific issue order to determine medical treatment, this is often seen where parents and medical professionals do not agree on medical treatment for a child.
If you are a parent of a child who is 12-15 years old we would suggest having an open discussion with the other parent. Obtain information from school and your GP to try and come to a unified decision over the vaccine. You will, of course, also need to discuss this with your child as even if you both want them to have the vaccine, they could ultimately refuse it. It is unlikely that we will see any court proceedings over this issue as the decision for the vaccine being offered to 12-15 year olds is reported to have been made largely over saving sick days from school, rather than for health reasons. If you are not able to agree over whether your child should have the vaccine mediation is also an option to offer a forum within which to discuss this issue with the guidance of a trained mediator. There are also mediators who are specifically trained to enable children (where appropriate) to attend mediation, so this may also be an option.