Nothing is more important than safeguarding children’s health, whatever their family situation may be. That is why there are very strict children’s healthcare laws and guidelines in place to protect them. For instance, clear protocols exist around who can give consent for a minor’s medical treatment from a doctor or hospital. Schools are also bound by legal red tape re how much medical care they can give pupils while they are on site. There are also times when children can speak for themselves. This is all supported by children’s health laws and protocols to keep everyone informed and protected.
Know the law around children’s health
There are different parental roles and responsibility and among them one is the health of the children. There will be various times when health issues could arise around children’s health and the law. For instance, they could require emergency medical intervention, which could only be given with an appropriate adult’s consent. Or they may be offered a vaccination at their school, but will need prior permission before it can be administered. In other cases, there may be a disagreement between parents or guardians, separated or otherwise, on how to proceed with a medical course of action.
Here are some questions and answers around children’s healthcare law and how it applies to you and your child.
Who can give consent for medical treatment?
When your child is ill or has an accident, it is second nature to take them to a doctor or hospital for help. If your child is under 18, and you have parental responsibility for them, you are entitled to have a say in how they are treated. For example, you can grant or decline permission on their behalf. Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals should ask for your agreement before examining or treating your child.
A child’s mother automatically has parental responsibility. So does the father if he was married to the mother when his child was conceived or born, or if they got married later on. Unmarried fathers can apply for a court order to be given parental responsibility. Finally, parents can grant permission to anyone looking after their child at the time of their accident or illness to take medical decisions in their absence. This could include child minders, family members or teachers. Whoever ends up taking the decisions is expected to put the child’s welfare above all other considerations.
If you disagree with the medical advice or proposed course of treatment, yours is normally the final say. However, it’s always wise to consider what the medical experts are advising and keep discussions open. If the medical professional believes that the treatment could be life-saving or crucial in another way, they can apply to the court to overrule the parental decision. The parents will then have the chance to put their case forward and the court decides the outcome.
When can children consent to their own treatment?
Although parents (or those with parental responsibility or authority to act on their behalf) can have a say in what happens until the child is 18, there are exceptions. The parent must have the mental capacity to give their consent, for example. Also, once a child turns 16 years old, they can legally consent to their own medical care if the circumstances dictate that this is the best course of action. They can also ask that their parents are not informed about their medical records. This is only allowed, however, if professionals deem the child mature enough to understand the implications around their decisions.
For children under 16, there is also the Gillick competence law. This is part of medical law in England and Wales. It allows children under 16 to agree to their own medical treatment without parental permission or even knowledge. However, this only goes ahead if it is deemed best for the children’s health. The child must demonstrate sufficient understanding and intelligence to make an informed decision to benefit their own health.
An example of this is when a teenager comes to a doctor or nurse to request contraception. They ask to keep it confidential because they fear their parents may refuse their permission on moral grounds. However, the child wants to be able to protect themselves during sexual intercourse. This can be said to be acting in their own best interests medically and so allowed under Gillick competence protocols.
Some questions to understand whether to give consent to medical treatment
- Why is the treatment being proposed?
- How long will it take and what does it involve?
- What will be preferred outcome be?
- Are there any risks, and what are they?
- What are the chances it will work as planned?
- Are there any alternative treatments?
- What will happen if the treatment does not go ahead?
There is no set rule around when children can overrule their parents’ wishes or seek confidentiality. It depends on the severity and nature of the treatment. Children can agree to have a routine vaccination under Gillick competence, for example, with much less concern than complicated heart surgery. Responsible medical professionals will strongly encourage children to involve their parents or care-givers in their medical decisions.
What happens if parents disagree over their children’s health treatment?
This situation can be pretty common, especially if the child’s parents are separated or divorced and emotions are running high. Medical professionals will normally seek to gain unanimous approval from parents or care-givers before undertaking treatment. If this is not possible, then it is advisable to engage a children’s solicitor or legal advisor to help all parties agree a course of action.
The case can eventually go to court for the treatment to be formally approved or declined by a judge. This can be a distressing path to take for all concerned. It can also delay crucial treatment decisions, which could be life-altering. So, it is highly advisable to come to an agreement before this stage. This is where a children’s solicitor can help resolve the situation.