Vaccination of children; how does the Family Court handle disputes?

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

This post considers how the court should deal with disputes between those who have parental responsibility, about whether or not a child should be vaccinated. Vaccines are routinely administered in England; see Public Health England’s guidance in ‘The Green Book: Information for public health professionals on immunisations’. Despite the routine nature of vaccination, there remains a significant minority of those who object, some fearing that vaccines cause harm. The Court of Appeal however has given a very clear ruling that there is no medical evidence to support an argument that these routine childhood vaccines are harmful, and that local authorities do not need to seek the approval of the High Court before agreeing to vaccinate children in their care.

In February 2020 there was a decision in care proceedings about parents who objected to their child being vaccinated, which can be found at  [2020] EWHC 220 (Fam). The Judge commented that the father was “driven by the fundamental belief that neither the court nor the State, through the arm of the Local Authority has any jurisdiction to take decisions in relation to his children”.

The Judge heard medical evidence about the benefits of immunisation in general and in particular with regard to the child before him. He found that vaccination should not be characterised as ‘medical treatment’ but rather ‘a facet of public preventative health care intending to protect both individual children and society more generally’.

The Judge was satisfied that the local authority could authorise the vaccination of the child under section 33(3) of the Children Act 1989. This is significant, as previous cases (see Re SL (Permission to Vaccinate) [2017] EWHC 125 ) had set out that this issue had to be decided using the ‘inherent jurisdiction’ of the court – a jurisdiction which can only be exercised by the High Court or by Circuit Judges with special authorisation. This has the potential to take more time and cost more money to get a decision.

Therefore the Judge felt it appropriate to allow his decision to be appealed pursuant to the Family Procedure Rules 30.3(7) – ‘contradictory decisions on the substantive issue’

By the time the matter got to the Court of Appeal, no one was arguing that the child should NOT be vaccinated but everyone wanted clarity about what route people needed to use in any future cases like this.

Judgment was handed down on 22nd May 2020 in H (A Child Parental Responsibility : Vaccination) [2020] EWCA Civ 664

Is vaccination a ‘grave and serious’ matter?

The Court of Appeal decided that in order to make the right decision about the route to take, it was necessary to consider some broader questions, and in particular whether or not vaccination is to be considered ‘a grave or serious matter’ or should be regarded as ‘medical treatment’.

These questions also had to be considered in two different contexts: ‘public law’ proceedings (where the local authority shares parental responsibility with the parents) and ‘private law’ proceedings (where only individuals such as the mother and father share PR).

As a general principle, the State should be slow to interfere with how parents exercise their rights and duties with regard to their children and respect their right to do so, provided that they don’t put the child at risk of significant harm.

Giving consent to having a child vaccinated is clearly an exercise of parental responsibility. Most consider the decision to vaccinate ‘reasonable and responsible’. However it is not a legal requirement. Therefore a refusal to vaccinate your child and nothing else would be very unlikely to be considered ‘significant harm’ to the extent that the State could interfere and apply for a care order under section 31(3) of the Children Act.

The child in the care of the local authority

The starting point for a child in local authority care is section 33 of the Children Act 1989. This gives the LA parental responsibility alongside the parents and the power to ‘override’ the parents provided that what it proposes is necessary to safeguard the welfare of the child. The LA cannot however change a child’s religion or name, or take the child out of the country using this section.

This applies to ‘interim’ and ‘final’ care orders. However, when decisions ‘with profound or enduring consequences’ needed to be made – such as serious medical treatment – the general view is that it was not right for the LA to use section 33 to override a parent’s wishes without further scrutiny – the matter needed to come before the High Court to be resolved.

So – is consenting to vaccination something that a LA can do without the High Court’s permission? Or is this ‘serious medical treatment’?

Medical evidence about the benefit of vaccines is clear

The Court of Appeal first examined the current established medical view – routine vaccination of children is not only in the best interests of the children but also the general public.

The Court of Appeal acknowledged that most – but not all – of the concerns about the safety of vaccinations relate to the MMR vaccination. This was introduced in 1988. Concerns arose that there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism following the publication of a paper in The Lancet by Dr Andrew Wakefield. This attracted widespread publicity and caused a drastic reduction in MMR vaccination rates and corresponding increase in cases of measles. It then transpired that Dr Wakefield had not declared a number of conflicting interests and by 2004, 10 of the 12 co-authors of the 1998 paper had withdrawn their support for the claimed link with autism.

Dr Wakefield was then investigated by the General Medical Council for misconduct and in May 2010 he was struck off the medical register and The Lancet formally retracted his paper. No mainstream medical opinion now accepts a link between vaccination and autism.

The Court of Appeal accepted that the medical evidence:

overwhelmingly identifies the benefits to a child of being vaccinated as part of the public health initiative to drive down the incidence of serious childhood and other diseases.

The Court of Appeal were very clear that this short recitation of such historical events was necessary to ‘bring an end’ to the parade of expert witnesses in cases involving vaccination, to demonstrate its medical benefits, unless a child has ‘an unusual medical history’ – see for example in Re C and F (Children) [2003] EWHC 1376 (Fam).

There could be other issues than purely medical over vaccinations which impact on a child’s welfare – for example the parent’s religious belief – but the Court of Appeal have decisively put to bed any lingering doubts about the medical benefits of vaccination.

Regardless of benefit – are vaccines ‘serious medical treatment’?

Regardless of its medical benefit, were the parents right to say that only the High Court could resolve a dispute between parents and a local authority? There have sadly been very many cases where care proceedings and complex medical treatment intertwine and the High Court has been asked to intervene.

The most difficult and controversial cases have been where care proceedings were used to bring parents before the court over disputes about medical treatment where the parents are otherwise ‘unimpeachable’. The Court of Appeal did not approve of this. The more usual route in cases of dispute over serious medical treatment, is via the NHS Trust responsible for treating a child applying to invoke the court’s inherent jurisdiction. in such applications, there is no need to discuss threshold criteria or ‘blame’ the parents and the sole criterion is the welfare of the child.

The Court of Appeal acknowledged that some previous cases could be interpreted as denying that the LA had the power to authorise ANY medical treatment. But, if that was the correct interpretation – then those cases got it wrong.

The Court of Appeal then turned to examine how vaccination cases in particular had been dealt with by the courts. It was noted that in a previous case the hearing had lasted two weeks with extensive medical evidence and a judgment of 370 pages which concluded that it was in the best interests of the healthy children to be vaccinated. That decision was appealed and the appeal dismissed. See In Re C (Welfare of Child: Immunisation) [2003] EWCA Civ 1148[2003] 2 FLR 1095) However, further cases continued to hear extensive expert evidence.

The Court of Appeal stated that by the 2010 at the very latest, there has been no evidential basis for suggesting a link between MMR and autism and other vaccines which are routinely given to children have not been subject to the same high profile concerns about their safety.

The Court of Appeal did not think it mattered to call vaccinations ‘medical treatment’ or ‘preventative health care’ – what mattered is whether vaccinations were ‘grave’ and ‘serious’ in the context of the exercise of PR by a local authority. This was soundly rejected:

I cannot agree that the giving of a vaccination is a grave issue (regardless of whether it is described as medical treatment or not). In my judgment it cannot be said that the vaccination of children under the UK public health programme is in itself a ‘grave’ issue in circumstances where there is no contra-indication in relation to the child in question and when the alleged link between MMR and autism has been definitively disproved. 

Cases involving disputes between parents

The route for parents who cannot agree about vaccination is to apply for a Specific Issue Order under section 8 of the Children Act 1989 – see Thorpe LJ in Re C (Immunisations) at paragraph [17] where in 2003 he expressed the view that immunisations were part of a ‘small group of important decisions’ where if those with PR could not agree, it should come before the court. The Court of Appeal wondered if now in 2020 this could still hold good given that all evidence unequivocally supports the recommendation of Public Health England that vaccinations benefit children and the wider society. However, the Court of Appeal declined to offer a definite view about this.

However, the reality is that if parents can’t agree in discussion or more formal mediation, neither has primacy over the other and they have no option but to come to court for resolution.

This is very different to the situation where a care order exists, as in that situation Parliament has given the LA the power to override a parent unless its a decision of such magnitude that it must come before the High Court.

Warning to local authorities

However, the Court of Appeal sounded a note of caution, warning the local authority that it must involve parents in decision making and section 33 CA 1989 was not an invitation to ‘ride rough shod’ over parents. If the parents do not agree with the the LA decision to consent to vaccination, they can make an application to invoke the inherent jurisdiction and apply for an injunction under the Human Rights Act 1998 to prevent vaccination before the matter comes before the court.

The Court of Appeal decision does not in any way diminish the importance of parental views where there is a real issue about what decision will promote a child’s welfare. However, the weight to be given any objection is not decided by how insistently it is made, but according to what substance it has.

The pressure on the family justice system is already serious enough without devoting weeks of High Court time to reinventing the vaccination wheel.

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