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Family Matters - Getting to the point of jab issues

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This was first published in the Wigan Observer on the 22nd of October 2013.

Q: When our 13-year-old was younger, we opted out of the MMR Vaccine. Now my former partner has changed their mind and wants to force our child to have it. Where do I stand legally?

A: Immunisation of children is not compulsory in the UK so parents can choose whether or not to have their child immunised, but clearly where parents can not come to an agreement on such an issue or more serious medical treatment, this can then lead to problems.

The debate surrounding MMR vaccinations is often a contentious issue for parents who have differing views on whether their child should or should not have the vaccination.

The debate over the benefits of children receiving the vaccination stem back many years, and particularly to 1998, when a controversial research paper claimed that the vaccine had possible links with increased cases of autism and other problems. As a result of this, many parents across the UK decided against getting their children vaccinated despite the research that lead to these conclusions was subsequently discredited.

In recent weeks the topic has been in the news again, as a parent who had previously agreed not to have his two children immunised with the MMR when they were babies, decided that he would wish for them to receive it, having expressed increasing concern that the children were at risk of contracting measles, mumps or rubella, particularly since the news had broken earlier this year of measles outbreaks, starting in South Wales. At the same time it was reported that the Wigan area in particular was one of those hardest hit for increased incidents of measles. .

The mother and children, were of the opinion that they should still not receive the MMR vaccination, on the basis mother was unconvinced as to the benefits of the vaccine and remained concerned about any potential side effects.

As the parents could not come to an agreement themselves, the father made an application to the High Court for a Specific Issue Order. It was agreed that the paramount consideration of the court was the children’s welfare, as would be the case in any application for a contact, residence, prohibited steps or specific issue order in respect to a child. In considering a child’s welfare the court is guided by the matters set out in the welfare checklist in s 1 (3) Children Act 1989 such as the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of his/her age and understanding); the child’s physical, emotional and educational needs; the child’s age, sex, background and any characteristics which the court considers relevant; as well as any harm which s/he has suffered or is at risk of suffering.

The judge decided that the benefits of the vaccination in preventing disease would outweigh the risks of any side effects that vaccination might cause and ruled that the children should have the vaccination.

The Judge did emphasise that it was a specific case ‘only concerned with the welfare needs of these children’ involved in the particular case before the court, but the case does demonstrate that where the parents or carers cannot reach a decision themselves in respect to such medical issues, the courts can and will take any difficult decisions instead, based upon what it believes is in a child’s best interests. There have been similar cases in the news over the last year or two regarding children receiving blood transfusions against parents’ religious objections, and a court directing treatment for cancer when a parent had refused to allow it.

If you find that your child should have specific medical treatment, it should be a matter for you and your former partner to try and discuss together upon taking advice from your child’s medical professionals and I would strongly urge you to weigh up the pros and cons of any proposed treatment together, and at all times with the best interests of your child at the forefront of your mind, rather than what you might feel is best for you. Try and keep the lines of communication open, keep things in proportion and work together towards a resolution without resorting to legal intervention unless absolutely necessary.

By Chris Fairhurst, family law department