Susan J Williams Partner and Head of Family Department (Cardiff)
To vaccinate or not to vaccinate: What happens if parents cannot agree on the vaccination of their children against Covid-19?
In the last week, it has been widely reported that the USA has authorised the use of a Covid-19 vaccine to be administered to children over 12 years of age. Although the UK is currently assessing the data, it is anticipated that they will also approve the use of a Covid-19 vaccine for children. Then. the question that arises is: what happens if parents cannot agree on whether their child should be given a Covid-19 vaccine?
Covid-19 vaccinations for children
Until recently, vaccinations of children with a Covid-19 vaccine were not an immediate objective of the government. Children under 18 years of age were considered low risk for contracting, suffering from and spreading of the virus. In addition, there was insufficient trial data. However, with the increase of Covid-19 variant strains working through communities across the country at increasing rates, there is a race against time to vaccinate as many people as possible. Therefore vaccinating children over the age of 12 has become a new government priority, and it is possible, once the vaccine has been approved, that children could begin to receive a Covid-19 vaccine in the autumn and winter of 2021.
If parents disagree on whether their child should receive a vaccination, the starting point to consider is that; if the parents each have parental responsibility for the child, neither of the parents views take precedence.
A mother has automatic parental responsibility from the birth of their child. If the father was married to the mother at the time of the birth, he will also have automatic parental responsibility. For unmarried fathers, they can gain parental responsibility by being named on the child’s birth certificate, by agreement with the mother or by an order of the court.
What is parental responsibility?
Parental responsibility is the collection of powers, duties, rights and responsibilities of a parent towards their child. It can be argued that having your child vaccinated is part of exercising your parental responsibility; in doing what is right for your child and carrying out your duties and responsibilities to protect your child from having a preventable illness.
However, having your child vaccinated causes anxiety among many parents. Therefore, it is important that parents communicate with one another about their concerns and anxieties, seek trusted advice, and read as much about the vaccine as possible from credible sources. If ultimately the parents disagree, then an application to the court will be necessary and they will decide whether the vaccination should proceed or not.
It is important to bear in mind that there is no legal mandatory requirement that a child has to be vaccinated. However, the general view is that vaccinating a child will be in their best interest, and in the best interest of society as a whole. The impact on communities from the Covid-19 pandemic makes this principle even more important.
In recent years, there have been a number of cases that have been brought before the court for decisions to be made about children being vaccinated. More recently, there have been two cases that have taken place during the pandemic; one being M v H&P&T (private law vaccination) 2020. In the majority of cases, the courts have concluded that the child involved should receive the recommended vaccine, even where parents have argued that it is against their human rights. The court has decided that the child’s rights, welfare and best interests takes precedence and they have ordered the child receives the approved vaccines.
When reflecting on the comments of the Judges in the cases that have recently been decided, it is difficult to see how a parent would succeed when objecting to their child being vaccinated. In particular, if the vaccine is proved as safe for children, that there were no scientific concerns over the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, or any specific underlying health condition of the child which would preclude the child from having the vaccine.
These principles are more than likely to apply to the Covid-19 vaccines if they are approved for use in children under the age of 18.
It is understandable that parents can struggle with the decision to vaccinate their child or not. Historically, we have seen the impact on vaccination take up in children. For example, with the MMR vaccine when false information in the early 1990s was given to parents about the link of autism and the vaccine. Now, with information widely available on television, radio and social media, parents are bombarded with different advice. From this, it is easy to see how disputes can quickly arise. As adults, we have seen a raft of opinions, reports and information on the Covid-19 vaccine and it is natural to be cautious.
However, the court's view is likely to be, that if the Covid-19 vaccine is authorised by the government for children over the age of 12, then it will be in the best interest of the child concerned, along with the child’s wider community, to have the vaccine, as the benefits will greatly outweigh its potential risks.
How we can help
If you find yourself facing a similar dilemma, either now or in the future, it is important to get advice and guidance as soon as possible.
At Ince, we have a dedicated team of specialist family lawyers who can help you navigate through the difficult decisions you may have to make and help you find the right solutions for you and your family.
The information above is not and should not be taken to be legal advice. You should not take action or omit to take action based on this information. If you require any help on the issues raised above, please get in touch using the details above.