What happens if parents disagree about vaccinating their child?
This article looks at the law regarding vaccinations for children and in particular the family court’s anticipated approach in respect of COVID-19 vaccinations.
Vaccinating children is not compulsory in England. However, it is a decision which can only be taken with the consent of both parents (assuming that they both have parental responsibility for the child). If the parents cannot reach an agreement about whether to vaccinate their child, they can apply to court and ask the court to decide the matter.
How does the court decide whether a child should be vaccinated?
In December 2020, the court gave judgment in the case of M v H (Private Law Vaccination).
A father had applied to court for an order in respect of his two children because their mother did not want them to be vaccinated. She argued that vaccination would not necessarily immunise the children, and that the side effects of the vaccines would be more detrimental to her children than the symptoms of the diseases they were being vaccinated against. The father disagreed and thought that vaccination was in the children’s best interests.
The judge decided that the children should be vaccinated. The judge said that, where vaccinations are recommended by Public Health England, it will generally be in a child’s best interests to receive that vaccine.
The only exceptions, where a court may not approve the vaccination of a child, are:
- where there is a well-evidenced medical reason why that particular child should not receive the vaccine, for example if they have a particular health condition which makes them more susceptible to side-effects; or
- if there was ‘credible evidence’ indicating significant concern about the efficacy or safety of a vaccine.
Looking ahead: COVID-19 vaccinations and children
At present, the government has not announced any plans to vaccinate children against COVID-19.
In the case mentioned above, the father asked the court to order that the children should be vaccinated against COVID-19 in the future, if and when a vaccination for children becomes available. The judge did not make that order, and explained that this was because at this point in time it is not clear whether children will receive the vaccine, or what the official guidance might be about providing the vaccine to children.
The judge did however say that:
It is ‘very difficult to foresee a case in which a vaccination approved for use in children, including vaccinations against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, would not be endorsed by the court as being in a child’s best interests.’
It will therefore be difficult for a parent to demonstrate to a court that it is not in their child’s best interest to receive a vaccine if it has been recommended for use in children. This includes a vaccine for COVID-19 if, in the future, a vaccine is endorsed for use in children. Any arguments to this effect would need to be based on peer-reviewed research evidence or expert evidence.