Child Vaccination Case: Parental Disagreement

31st March 2021
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Child Vaccination Case: “I want to vaccinate my child and the child’s father does not agree. What can I do?”

Vaccinations have been a hot topic in the press in recent months given the roll-out of the various Covid-19 vaccinations.

Immunisation often provokes strong reactions and opinions, and many people will recall the debate around the safety of the MMR vaccination in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s.

The World Health Organisation withdrew measle-free status for the UK, the Czech Republic, Greece and Albania in 2019 and the Pacific nation of Samoa suffered a widespread measles outbreak in the same year. 

The safety of vaccinations is questioned by some parents who are sceptical about the need for vaccinations and have concerns about profiteering by the pharmaceutical industry.

Vaccination is not compulsory in the UK but it is strongly recommended by health professionals. The recommended vaccinations are set out in the routine immunisation schedule to be found in the “Green Book” published by Public Health England.

Child Vaccination – Parental Decisions

If parents cannot agree with regard to the question of whether their children should be vaccinated, they will have to ask the court to resolve the dispute. Of course, the parties should attempt to resolve their disagreement via mediation or some other ADR process, before rushing off to court, but vaccination is often a black and white issue on which many parents are unable to reach a compromise.

The parent will need to make an application to the court for a specific issue order for their child to be vaccinated. They should be very clear and specific in the application what vaccinations they want their child to have and should seek medical opinion from their child’s GP as to whether there are any concerns about the child receiving the usual NHS recommended vaccinations. In an appropriate case, it may be necessary and proportionate to obtain expert medical opinion.

Cases concerning child vaccinations are highly emotive and sensitive, and as a result, the Court will allocate the case to the High Court and appoint a Guardian to separately represent the child in the proceedings. The Court in every case is entrusted with the task of deciding what is in the child’s best interests, taking into account all of the circumstances of the case and the evidence available to the Court. The Court will also consider whether the proposed vaccinations against one of the parent’s wishes are a necessary and justifiable interference with Article 8(2) European Convention on Human Rights [EHCR] in order to protect the child’s health.

Any parent considering a court application in this area should consider the recent case of Re B (A Child: Immunisation) [2018] – it provides a helpful summary of the law in this area. A single joint expert, a Dr David Elliman, a specialist in immunology, was instructed by the parties to provide an expert opinion in this case. 

In response to the objections of the father in this case, Dr Elliman was of the view that there are effective systems in place for the continuous monitoring of the efficacy and safety of vaccines. Dr Elliman stated that whilst there is no absolute certainty that a vaccine will not give rise to side effects, it is a matter of balancing risk. The risk to a child of developing a particular disease is greater than the risk of suffering an adverse reaction to the vaccine. Dr Elliman explained that vaccination has two benefits: it protects the individual and further if uptake is sufficiently high it results in “herd immunity”. In the UK, whether a vaccine should be part of the national immunisation programme is decided by the Department of Health in consultation with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, an independent Expert Committee. 

Having heard from Dr Elliman and from the parties in the case, and reviewed the case law in the last 15 years, the Judge concluded that B should be vaccinated. He was clear that in so ruling, he was not saying anything about the merits of vaccination more widely, he was only concerned with what was in B’s best welfare interests.

This case demonstrates that it will be very difficult for any parent, in a contested application, to challenge their child being vaccinated on the basis of efficacy or safety of vaccines. 

However, the court will deal with every application with reference to the particular characteristics of the child, with the child’s welfare always being the paramount consideration. There is no legal presumption in favour of vaccination.

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