The court dismissed the parents’ applications, finding there was no evidence that EE at age 17 lacked capacity and no evidence that she sought imminent treatment. There was no ‘matter’ before the court to undertake an assessment of capacity. This case has provoked controversy about the extent to which any person who wants to remove healthy parts of their body can be said to have ‘capacity’ but the parents’ legal action appeared doomed at the outset on the basis of the evidence they presented and their obvious hostility to ‘LGBT’.
I use she/her pronouns for EE as she is female.
Judgment was handed down by Mr Justice MacDonald in September 2023 in the case of GK and LK v EE (formerly RK).
EE’s parents applied to court in June 2023 under the inherent jurisdiction and via the Court of Protection under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 (MCA) with regard to their 17 year old daughter, who turned 18 shortly after the judgment. EE self identifies as a non binary lesbian and at the time was in the care of the local authority via section 20 accommodation. The parents wanted to instruct experts to assess her capacity and asked for an injunction preventing EE from having any kind of gender affirming medical treatment, arguing that she lacked capacity to make decisions about this.
EE and the local authority told the court that the parents were driven by prejudice against EE’s gender identity and pointed out that EE had no current plans for any medical treatment. Therefore, the court had no ‘matter’ under the MCA to make any decision.
Further, there was no sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption that EE had capacity under section 1(2) of the MCA. EE’s GP records contained no diagnosis of mental illness. The parents claimed EE had been diagnosed with ‘schizoptypal disorder’ by a psychiatrist in country X, from which the family originated, moving to the UK when EE was three.
EE could not recall speaking to any foreign psychiatrist and had received no medication. She alleged that her parents had been physically and emotionally abusive to her, which they denied. But there were police records that in July 2022 EE was assaulted by her parents who ‘did not like’ that she was ‘LGBT’. She asserted that she had tried to talk to her parents about this since she was 11, but they were very hostile and she gave up aged around 13/14.
There was a child protection medical and EE was found to have non accidental injuries, but there was no mention of any mental health issue or personality disorder in any of the reports at the time. A child protection conference followed, the parents now asserted that EE was undergoing a psychotic episode. EE returned home in August on the basis that there would be no further physical or emotional abuse from her parents.
But EE then discussed with her parents the desire to have ‘top surgery’ i.e. a double mastectomy to remove her breasts. The parents asked her to postpone any decision until she was 25 and EE asserts that they became increasingly controlling, insisted she undergo online therapy and persistently made homophobic/transphobic comments. The local authority undertook a Child and Family Assessment, with no concerns for EE’s mental health. By November 2022 matters had seriously degenerated to the point that EE’s father attempted to restrain her and she hit him. EE then agreed to be accommodated by the local authority.
The parents were very unhappy with this situation and asserted that the local authority had referred EE to Mermaids and was encouraging her to take testosterone. EE had a further medical assessment in February 2023 which raised no concerns and recorded a significant improvement in EE’s mood and outlook since leaving home. She expressed gender dysphoria, but had no current plans to engage in medical treatment.
The parents argued that EE lacked capacity to make decisions about any such treatment and relied upon the Cass Review that social transition should not be seen as ‘neutral’. The parents asserted that the wider paternal family had a history of mental health issues, EE had self harmed, used a binder, abused alcohol and drugs and these issues along with others showed that EE was unable to retain, use and weigh relevant information relating to gender affirming treatment. Therefore experts were needed to assess her.
EE was 17 at the relevant time but was very close to 18, when the court would cease to have jurisdiction under the inherent jurisdiction. Therefore, the judgment focused on the legal principles under the MCA. This Act allows the court to make decisions in the best interests of those aged over 16 years, if they are found to lack capacity to make their own decisions. Section 1 of the MCA sets out its key principles – a person is assumed to have capacity, and cannot lack capacity just because he makes an unwise decision.
EE could only lack capacity if her inability to make decisions was due to ‘an impairment of, or a disturbance in the functioning of, the mind or brain‘ and due to this she could not understand information relevant to the decision, retain the information, use or weigh the information, or communicate her decision. Capacity is assessed in relation to the specific decision at the time the decision needs to be made.
Therefore the court couldn’t make any decisions under the MCA as there was no ‘matter’ to be decided; EE had no current plans for any gender affirming treatment. Even if there had been a ‘matter’ before the court, not only does the MCA presume capacity, EE had ‘legal capacity’ under section 8 of the Family Law Reform Act 1969 which sets up a rebuttal presumption that 16 year olds can consent to medical treatment.
The court examined the interplay between the MCA, FLRA and ‘Gillick competence’ in para 48, approving the position that a child under 16 must be found ‘Gillick competent’ to provide consent to medical treatment. Once the child is 16, their legal capacity is assumed and their mental capacity is examined under the MCA. Thus, absent any evidence that EE lacked capacity, she could at 17 make a decision to have gender affirming treatment. There was no need for any expert evidence.
The court noted at para 60 the kind of evidence it would need to engage with the applications made by the parents
In the absence of any gender affirming treatment being proposed at
this time, the court does not have before it any evidence as to what such treatment involves, what the potential dangers and side effects of such treatment are, the nature and extent of the preparatory counselling with respect to the decision to have, and the consequences of, gender affirming medical treatment and any assessment of the treating clinicians of EE’s capacity to consent to such treatment.
The court did not make a finding that the parents considered EE mentally ill simply because of her stated sexuality and identification as ‘non binary’ but did comment at para 67 that the court was left with the ‘distinct impression’ that this was the case.
I agree that the evidence is sparse to suggest that gender affirming care has long term positive benefits. I agree it is sad to see EE assert (para 36)
I have thought about gender reassignment for many years, and it is
something that has always been on my mind. I feel quite strongly about this, and I am of the view that my real life would begin once I undergo Bilateral mastectomy, also known as top surgery.
If in fact her ‘real life’ does not begin after the removal of her breasts then of course it is too late to reverse the surgery. It does not seem likely that EE is able at 18 to confidently foresee how she would feel about the amputation of her breasts when she is 30, alongside her possible infertility if she begins taking testosterone.
Many who objected to this decision on social media appeared to share the parents’ views that simply to claim a ‘non binary’ identity or want to remove healthy breasts, was in and off itself evidence of ‘profound mental illness’ that rendered EE incapable of making any decisions about gender affirming care.
But it is not the court’s place to prohibit an entire regime of medical or surgical treatment without compelling evidence. The courts have to place trust and reliance in the medical profession to stick to its own code of conduct. If EE has capacity, and can find a willing surgeon, she has the freedom to make unwise choices. I do not see how the court could have made any other decision on the evidence and the law before it.
I understand that many people were unhappy with this decision, but any changes to the culture around ‘gender identity’ and affirmative treatment will have to come from Parliament and the medical profession. My hope is that the final report of the Cass Review will continue to support therapeutic interventions as first call. If parents do wish to assert that their children lack capacity to make decisions about gender affirming care, then they are going to need to bring hard evidence to the court proceedings, which these parents could not.
While I personally think it is very sad that a young woman would ever contemplate drastic and irreversible surgery so that her ‘real life’ could begin, the simple response is that it is not my life, nor my breasts. EE may well regret such surgery when she is older, but the MCA exists to protect the freedom to make unwise choices. If asked to choose between ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’, I choose the first, every time. And I must extend that freedom to all others with capacity.