A child’s consent to transition: the view from Down Under

Imogen (No. 6) [2020] FamCA 761; (10 September 2020)

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore.

This is a case from the Family Court in Australia – so of interest to those of us in England and Wales as our jurisdictions share a common history. It is a case that makes much of Gillick competence which is certainly a familiar domestic concept and I have written about it in more detail here. One key difference however is that Imogen was over 16 years old – therefore if this was a case in England or Wales, she would be considered competent to consent to medical treatment as if she were an adult, by virtue of the Family Law Reform Act 1969.

I have written about the changing attitudes of the High Court to transitioning pre-schoolers here.

Facts of Imogen’s case

Imogen was born a boy called Thomas. She was diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria and was taking puberty suppression medication. When she was aged 16 years and 8 months old, she wished to move to ‘stage 2 gender affirming hormone treatment ‘. Her father supported this but her mother did not, disputing both the diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria and that Imogen was Gillick competent, i.e. able to make the decision to take hormones. The mother wanted Imogen to have therapy, rather then medical treatment.

Both the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Attorney General were intervenors in the case, so its importance is clear. There was also an Independent Children’s Lawyer (ICL).

The court had a variety of questions to grapple with. If there is a dispute about medical treatment for an adolescent, was it mandatory to make an application to court to resolve that dispute? If Imogen was Gillick competent – could she make her own decision without her parents’ consent? If the court had to resolve the dispute then what was the legal test?

The court found that where there was such a dispute about the existence of a medical condition or the need for treatment, it was mandatory to make an application to the court – and interestingly there was official guidance that got the law wrong about that. The court decided that the test was what was in Imogen’s best interests – and it was for her to receive the treatment she wanted.

The discussions in this case are very relevant for every common law jurisdiction – there has been a staggering increase in recent years of the number of children wishing to ‘transition’ from one sex to the other and some interesting legal actions on the horizon, criticising the swiftness with which children are put on the path of ‘affirmation’ that leads to medication and surgery.

What is the best way to treat children with Gender Dysphoria?

The court acknowledged that this case was taking place within a wider debate about treatment for children with gender dysphoria, but the court was focusing on what was best for Imogen. Expert evidence was heard which was split roughly into three camps.

Imogen’s treating medical practitioners followed “The Australian Standards of Care and Treatment Guidelines: For trans and gender diverse children and adolescents” (“the Australian Standards”) which adopted a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment using gender affirming hormones.

The mother relied on an expert psychiatrist Dr D’Angelo, who advocated a more conservative approach, preferring psychotherapy rather than medication.

Reference was also made to the “Informed Consent Model” where general practitioners are willing to prescribe gender affirming hormone treatment to 16 and 17 year old adolescents without knowing whether their parents or legal guardians consent.

It was clear that Dr C – Imogen’s treating psychiatrist – and Dr D’Angelo adopted “fundamentally different diagnostic frameworks, methods, and conceptualisation of the experience of Gender Dysphoria”.

The court – annoyingly – describe ‘Gender Dysphoria’ at para 22 as

Gender Dysphoria is a term that describes the distress experienced by a person due to incongruence between their gender identity and their gender assigned at birth.

This conflation between sex and gender is very typical and has not assisted clarity in the general debate about the proper approach to a child who rejects the sex with which they were born.

The Australian Standards provide (at page 11) that the optimal model of care for trans and gender diverse adolescents who present to services involves a coordinated, multidiscipline team approach. There are two stages to treatment – Stage 1 is ‘puberty suppression’ via gonadotrophin releasing hormone analogues (GnRHa) in order to halt progression of physical changes such as breast growth or voice deepening. Stage 2 is ‘gender affirming hormone treatment’. Some of the effects of this medication are irreversible and likely to lead to the child becoming infertile.

The court noted at paragraph 27 that the Australian Standards gave incorrect guidance as to the law about when an adolescent could consent to stage 2 treatment – an interesting parallel to the situation in England and Wales where a number of official guidances around treatment of trans children are being challenged as unlawful.

At page 7, the Australian Standards state, “current law allows adolescent’s clinicians to determine their capacity to provide informed consent for treatment. Court authorisation prior to commencement of hormone treatment is no longer required”… “…[a]lthough obtaining consent from parents/guardians for commencement of hormone treatment is ideal, parental consent is not required when the adolescent is considered to be competent to provide informed consent”.

Further investigation of Gillick competence.

Australian courts have adopted the approach explained by the House of Lords in Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority [1985] UKHL 7;  [1986] AC 112, that the parental power to consent on behalf of a child diminishes as the child’s capacities and maturities grow: a child is capable of giving informed consent, and a parent is no longer capable of consenting on the child’s behalf, when the child achieves a sufficient understanding and intelligence to enable him or her to understand fully what is proposed.

However, at paragraph 29, the court noted that regardless of the child’s Gillick competence, its permission was required for non-therapeutic procedures, in particular those that required in combination: 

  1. invasive, irreversible and major surgery;
  2. a significant risk of making the wrong decision, either as to a child’s present or future capacity to consent or about the best interests of a child who cannot consent; and
  3. Where the consequences of a wrong decision are particularly grave.

The case of Re Kelvin, found that both stages of treatment were therapeutic and therefore, if the child, the parents and the medical practitioners agreed the child was Gillick competent, there was no need to involve the courts – the child could decide what treatment they were willing to accept.  

But the court was clear, at paragraph 35 that the matter MUST come before a court if a parent or doctor could not agree

  • If the child was Gillick competent
  • The diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria
  • or the proposed treatment for Gender Dysphoria

If the only issue in dispute was Gillick competence, the court would either declare the child competent or not – if competent, the child could consent to whatever treatment they liked.

BUT if there was a dispute about diagnosis or treatment, it was then up to the court to determine the diagnosis and decide what treatment was appropriate on the basis of what was in the adolescent’s best interests. Therefore, if the parents dispute the need for treatment, a doctor should NOT agree to provide it to even a Gillick competent adolescent without the authorisation of the court.

This is an interesting re-assertion of the parens patriae duty of the court – the protective and paternalistic jurisdiction it has over children to keep them safe from harm and certainly goes against the stated trend of current UK guidance that ‘parental responsibility’ is of little or even no importance against a child’s stated wish to ‘change sex’ – apparently even when the child is far too young for Gillick competence to be likely.

Why is it important to come to court to resolve these disputes? The Attorney General recognised two good reasons

  • Without the court’s authorisation, if a doctor gets it wrong about a child being Gillick competent, they risk criminal or civil liability for providing treatment, as the child cannot consent.
  • or a doctor may override the parental responsibility of the parent who does not consent, which puts the doctor in an invidious position.

Why is the finding of  Gillick competence of an adolescent not determinative, if parents do not agree about treatment?

This is the key question, not only for this court but for all others who operate according to the principle of Gillick competence. If we are saying that an adolescent is competent to make their own decisions, why isn’t that an end to the matter? This is because the court retains the ‘parens patriae’ jurisdiction over a child – to act as if the child’s parent.

There was no disagreement, that the court had the power to make an order against the wishes of a Gillick competent child, but it was unusual. For example, In X and Others v The Sydney Children’s Hospital Network [2013] NSWCA 320;  (2013) 85 NSWLR 294, the court did not allow a competent 17 year old Jehovah Witness to refuse blood products which were potentially lifesaving. However, this was the only case identified where a court has overruled the views of a Gillick competent child to impose treatment. Other cases involving anorexia nervosa and treatment for drug rehabilitation involved children who were not Gillick competent (Director General, Department of Community Services v Y [1999] NSWSC 644Director General, Department of Community Services v Thomas [2009] NSWSC 217;  (2009) 41 Fam LR 220).

No case was identified where a court had refused to authorise therapeutic treatment where a Gillick competent child had consented.

At para 59 the court was clear it should determine the dispute about the nature of the treatment to be given and in doing so the court should have regard to the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration and give significant weight to Imogen’s views in accordance with her maturity and level of understanding (Re Jamie, per Bryant CJ at [140](f)).

There is an interesting suggestion at para 57 about

the proliferation of academic and other writings since Re Kelvin and the emergence of alternate thinking about treatment and questions arising from the state of knowledge in respect of the long-term implications of current medical treatment for Gender Dysphoria.

Which suggests the court was certainly open to considering whether Stage 2 treatment was really therapeutic after all.

The Informed Consent Model.

The court went on to consider the legality of this.

Dr C gave evidence that “the Informed Consent Model” of care in Gender Dysphoria is being adopted by an increasing number of medical practitioners. This model sees general practitioners proceeding with the prescription of gender affirming hormone therapy to adolescents over 16 years of age who express the desire to do so and who are assessed by the general practitioner as being able to give informed consent to the treatment, without the general practitioner making any inquiry as to whether or not the parents or legal guardians of the adolescents give their consent. Dr C opines that there is confusion in respect of the legality of the Informed Consent Model.

The court was very clear. This was not lawful. See para 63

This judgment confirms the existing law is that any treating medical practitioner seeing an adolescent under the age of 18 is not at liberty to initiate stage 1, 2 or 3 treatment without first ascertaining whether or not a child’s parents or legal guardians consent to the proposed treatment. Absent any dispute by the child, the parents and the medical practitioner, it is a matter of the medical professional bodies to regulate what standards should apply to medical treatment. If there is a dispute about consent or treatment, a doctor should not administer stage 1, 2 or 3 treatment without court authorisation.

Conclusion

This re-affirmation of the importance of parental responsibility and court oversight is very important. Both have run the risk of being over looked or even over ridden by some who push an ‘affirmation model’ very insistently, to the extent that any challenge or even mild objection is characterised as ‘hate’ and ‘bigotry’. It will be interesting to see how in our jurisdiction, the Family Law Reform Act may shine a different light on the statutory competence of children aged over 16.

I concede there is a distinction between a child who seeks life changing treatment and a child who refuses life saving treatment, but we must surely all be able to agree that for anyone, serious surgery or medication must only be accessed via valid consent.

In the judgment, some very interesting discussion then follows about the emerging literature in the field of Gender Dysphoria and how to treat it – although I wonder if the reliance on ‘extremely high rates of suicide’ discussed below is a reference to now thoroughly debunked claims. But there can be no doubt at all that the way forward is by data and by discussion. It is not ‘transphobic’ or ‘hateful’ to care about the health of our children, both mental and physical.

In August 2019 the Federal Minister for Health wrote to The Royal Australian College of Physicians (RACP) seeking advice on the treatment of Gender Dysphoria in children and adolescents in Australia. The RACP responded on 5 March 2020. 

In that response, the RACP noted that trans and gender diverse children and adolescents are a very vulnerable population, experiencing stigma and extremely high rates of depression, self-harm, attempted suicide and completed suicide. Importantly, the RACP described treatment for Gender Dysphoria as an emerging area of healthcare where existing evidence on health and wellbeing outcomes of clinical care is limited due to the relatively small number of studies, the small size of study populations, the absence of long-term follow up and the ethical challenges of robust evaluation when control (no treatment) is not acceptable. The College relevantly observes that similar limitations on the existing evidence of healthcare apply to other conditions which affect small segments of the population, such as rare cancers.

The College expressed the view that addressing gaps in the evidence base is important, although notes that further scientific evidence may take a considerable period of time to produce.In the meantime, the College supported the principles underlying the Australian Guidelines, and specifically the emphasis on the multidisciplinary approach to providing person-centred care which priorities the best interests, preferences and goals of the child or adolescent. The College recommends that treatment should be holistic, developmentally informed, child centred and individualised. In order to facilitate a higher level of informed consent, the College recommends that patients and families must be provided with information about the limitations of the available evidence regarding Gender Dysphoria and there should be informed discussion of the burdens and benefits of treatment and options in a way each child or adolescent can understand. The College points to differences across Australia in the access, funding and delivery of care and treatment for Gender Dysphoria. It recommends the development of a national framework for service provision and outcomes monitoring and believes that that is the best way to ensure consistency in the outcome of data collection across jurisdictions.

Further Reading

The right to be fully informed – This site collates and summarises the medical literature and legal issues surrounding puberty blockers so that parents and doctors can be more fully informed. The information should not be taken as medical advice.

  

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