With the announcement that the COVID-19 vaccination is being rolled out to children as young as 12, separated parents may face difficulties in deciding whether their child will be vaccinated.
This week, the BBC has reported that 370,000 children are eligible for the vaccine. This is comprised of children over 12 who are at higher risk of getting ill if they catch Covid, those who live with other vulnerable people and those on the cusp of turning 18.
The decision is based on recommendations from the UK’s vaccines experts, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Parents to those children who are eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine will now have to decide whether their child should have the jab, but what happens if the parents are unable to agree?
Do you have parental responsibility?
It is important to determine who has parental responsibility when dealing with issues of health. Parental responsibility is defined in section 3 of the Children Act 1989 as “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property”. If both parents have parental responsibility for the child, they have equal rights in respect of their child and any decisions relating to the child’s health must be agreed between them.
What can be done where parents have different views on the Covid-19 vaccine?
If parents cannot agree on whether their child should have the vaccine, the best approach to take is to discuss the issue and try to reach an agreed resolution. The main consideration is always the child and what is in their best interests, and this should be borne in mind during any discussion.
If discussions between the parents are not proving effective, an alternative is to attend mediation. Mediation encourages parties to discuss their issues with the support of an impartial and independent mediator who can assist them in coming to an agreement.
What if discussions reach an impasse?
If discussions or mediation break down, the decision can be passed to the family courts. Either parent can make an application to the court under Section 8 of the Children Act 1989 for either a:
- Specific Issue Order – An Order in respect of a specific question in relation to an aspect of the parental responsibility of a child which has come up (or may come up), such as whether a child should be vaccinated;
- Prohibited Steps Order – This Order prevents a parent from taking a certain action in meeting their parental responsibility for a child – e.g. to stop a vaccination from being administered to their child.
When determining the issue, the child’s welfare is the paramount concern. The court has regard to the factors at section 1(3) of the Children Act 1989, the welfare checklist, namely:
- The wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of their age and understanding)
- Physical, emotional and educational needs
- Likely effect on the child of any change in their circumstances
- Age, sex and background
- Any harm or risk of suffering
- The range of powers available to the court
The court considered the position regarding vaccinations for children in M v H (Private Law Vaccination). The court ordered that if scientific evidence shows that having a vaccine is in the best interest of the child then the child should be vaccinated.
The courts are likely to take this approach with the Covid vaccine, and the court stated (obiter) that provided the Covid vaccination is approved for use in children, the court is likely to consider such a vaccination to be in the best interest of the child. Therefore, any parent seeking to object to their child having the Covid vaccine will have a difficult task persuading the court that the vaccine is not in the child’s best interest.
If a dispute arises in relation to medical treatment for your child, it is best to seek independent legal advice at an early stage.