What happens when parents disagree on whether their child/children should be vaccinated?
This week, the UK regulator approved the Pfizer vaccine for use on children aged 12-15. The regulator has stated it is safe and effective, and the benefits outweigh the risks. The matter is now before the UK vaccines committee who will now need to determine whether the vaccine should be rolled out to that age group.
The EU approved the vaccine a week before, and other countries such as the US and Canada have already started vaccinating children. It is therefore anticipated that the UK will follow suit and begin to roll the vaccine out as soon as approval from the vaccine committee is given.
However, some people are questioning whether children should be vaccinated given that the risk of children becoming seriously ill with Covid-19 is significantly low.
It is clear that there will be differences of opinion with regards to the vaccine, and any decisions will ultimately fall to the child’s parents. But one survey in Germany suggested that only 51% of parents wanted their child to have the jab.
Firstly, when dealing with issues of health, it is important to determine who has parental responsibility (PR) for the child. Parental responsibility is defined in s3 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”. Mothers automatically have it by virtue of being the child’s mother, and fathers acquire PR either by being married to the mother at the time of the birth, by being named on the child’s birth certificate, or by court order.
All those with PR have a responsibility towards the child to make decisions which are in their best interests. Decisions relating to important issues such as health, education and religious upbringing need to be agreed between all those who have PR. The Covid vaccine clearly falls within this definition and as such, parents should decide together whether their child should receive the vaccine.
If you are still unsure as to whether or not you have parental responsibility, or what your rights and responsibilities are as someone with PR, we would suggest getting in touch with a family law specialist who may be able to help.
What should you do if you are in this situation?
We would recommend trying the following:
If in the event that parents cannot agree as to whether or not their children get the vaccine, the first port of call is to try and discuss the matter. An open and honest dialogue is always beneficial where possible. The other parent may not understand why you feel the way you do, so it is important to explain your point of view. The main consideration is the welfare of the child and parents should always have this at the forefront of their mind. You should ask yourself “is it in my child’s best interests to have the vaccine? If not, why not?” Each situation will be different and dependent upon a number of individual factors which should be discussed with the other parent.
As an alternative, if you find it difficult to discuss matters with the other parent, another alternative is to explore other forms of dispute resolution such as mediation. Mediation is a forum whereby the parties are encouraged to discuss their issues with the assistance of an independent and impartial mediator. Mediation can be set up in a number of different ways to ensure the parties are as comfortable as possible, for example, if you are uncomfortable sitting at the same table, parties can be put in separate rooms and the mediator will go between you (known as shuttle mediation).
- Application to Court
Sometimes mediation may be inappropriate (for example due to domestic abuse). Alternatively, mediation may break down and you may find yourself in a position where no agreement/decision has been reached. Therefore you may need to apply to the court for a specific issue order.
Essentially you would be asking a judge to review both parent’s positions and to make a decision on that specific issue which will then be binding. You should always consult a family lawyer before making any application to court to you fully understand the implications, the pro’s and con’s as well as the possible consequences.
The positive about going to court is that you will get a resolution by the end of it. However the Court process can be long and draining. The Courts have significant backlogs and so there might be a delay in the application being heard. Furthermore, it can be very expensive and parties need to think carefully before any application is made as they may not get the outcome they wanted.
In terms of the courts position about the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been one specific case which has already looked at the issue, despite the vaccine not yet being approved. In M v H and P and T  EWFC 93 the father asserted that both children should be vaccinated in accordance with the NHS vaccination schedule. His initial application pertained to the MMR vaccine, but he later expanded the scope to include the Covid-19 vaccine when/if it becomes available. The mother opposed the application. The Court said “it is very difficult to foresee a situation in which a vaccination against COVID-19 approved for use in children would not be endorsed by the court as being in a child’s best interests”. See our previous blog for a full narrative about the case.
It is therefore a safe assumption that if the vaccine is approved for use by the UK vaccine committee, then it is extremely likely that the Courts would make an Order that a child be vaccinated, unless there is some compelling reason (such as a medical issue) not to do so.