Following on from the first part of our series, which focussed on the legal principles which will underpin any court’s decision regarding vaccinations for children, this article will aim to answer some of the most frequent and pressing questions related to the issue.
Can my former partner prevent my child from receiving the Covid-19 vaccine?
If you and your former partner are unable to agree on whether your child should receive the Covid-19 vaccine, you will have to apply to the court for a Specific Issue Order. These orders are designed to solve specific issues which parents may disagree upon – which school to send their child to or which surname they use on official documents for instance.
Unless there is a reason for exemption, applicants for a Specific Issue Order must fill out a C100 form, which includes the necessary confirmation that they have attended a mediation information and assessment meeting (MIAM), to explore whether alternative dispute resolution (ADR) paths could be more appropriate for your family than the court route, before applying for the issue to be heard by the court.
Once the application procedure has been completed, the issue will be heard before a court. In order to make their decision, the court will always consider the welfare of the child in question as the ultimate priority, with all decisions stemming from this paramount consideration.
There is currently no Covid-19 vaccine approved in the UK for under 18s, but trials have now begun involving children to find a safe vaccine for minors. As examined in the previous article of this series, there has not yet been a case relating to the Covid-19 vaccine and so no concrete precedent has been set. There are, however, previous cases relating to vaccines which can shed light.
As reiterated in M v H (Private Law Vaccination)  EWFC 93, the court relies on scientific evidence and peer-reviewed research and so generally views approved vaccinations as beneficial to the child. As tests are still ongoing on the various Covid vaccine’s effects on children, approval has not yet been granted but if/when this does occur, and the NHS recommends taking the vaccine, the court will likely take a similar view.
The process would be the same if you were to apply to the court for an order specifying that your child will receive the Covid-19 vaccine.
What evidence will the court consider when deciding on children’s vaccinations?
A key starting point is Section 2 (7) of the Children Act 1989 which stipulates that in cases where both parents have parental responsibility (see glossary), they have equal decision-making power, but the strength of their feelings are not the court’s primary consideration. The court must consider what is in the child’s best interests, weighing up all relevant factors.. The court’s decision will therefore be based on the evidential grounding of each parent’s view.
As previously mentioned, the court will assess the veracity and origin of the evidence produced by both parties. In the case of M v H mentioned above, the mother’s objection was grounded on evidence she had collected online, including “a newspaper article, a fact sheet, a flyer and a list of articles.” The court assessed the sources of these articles and judged them to fall short of their criteria of “a credible development in medical science.” Instead, the court asserted that for an argument against vaccination to be successful, “cogent, objective medical evidence” must be supplied.
Examples of this could include evidence which demonstrated that the complex medical history of the child in question could be impacted by vaccination.
What is the court’s view on vaccines in general?
If the vaccine in question has been approved by Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence, the court will likely view it as beneficial to the wellbeing of children. There are, as previously mentioned, possible exceptions to this – if a credible new development in medical science questions the benefit of the vaccine or if the child in question has a complicated medical history that may be affected by vaccination.
My partner and I cannot agree on whether our child will be vaccinated. What can I do?
The fact that parents are married at the time of the vaccination has no bearing on decisions for children. Important decisions in respect of a child’s upbringing, including decisions about their healthcare, must be made by consulting their parents who have parental responsibility (see glossary) for them. If the parents were married at the time the mother gave birth to the child, and/or the father is on the birth certificate, then both the mother and the father will have parental responsibility for the child, and therefore they must make the decision about whether their child gets vaccinated together. One parent cannot make that decision unilaterally if they share parental responsibility.
Any parent with parental responsibility can make an application to the court under the Children Act without needing the court’s permission to do so. So if there is a disagreement, if a parent has parental responsibility, they can apply to the court for a Specific Issue Order.