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Can parents legally refuse medical treatment for a child?

Parents may refuse medical treatment for their child in situations where they have concerns about the potential risks associated with the treatment. They may also have personal or religious beliefs that influence their decision. There may also be a desire to explore alternative treatment options such as homeopathy treatments.

However, parents do not have an absolute or irrefutable right to refuse medical treatment for their child. Their wishes can be overruled by the Court in England and Wales.

What if parents disagree on medical treatments for their child?

This depends on the nature of the decision. Some decisions can be take unilaterally by parent A, some decisions require parent A to inform parent B, but not obtain parent B’s consent, and other decisions require the consent of parent A and parent B.

In the case of A v A [2004] EWHC 142 (Fam)[Microsoft Word – 2004-EWHC-142 (], the Judge included a schedule / footnote to his judgment setting out scenarios where (a) parent A can act unilaterally, (b) where parent A has a duty to consult parent B but does not need parent B’s consent, and (c) where both parent A and B must consent. This provides the following and is a useful starting point:

  1. Decisions that could be taken independently and without any consultation or notification to the other parent.
    • Personal care for the children
    • Continuance of medicine treatment prescribed by GP
  2. Decisions where one parent would always need to inform the other parent of the decision, but did not need to consult or take the other parent’s views into account.
    • Medical Treatment in an emergency
    • Planned visits to the GP and the reasons for this
  3. Decisions that you would need to both inform and consult the other parent prior to making the decision.
    • Planned medical and dental treatment
    • Stopping medication prescribed for the children

In the event that parent A and B disagree on a decision that is a major one requiring both of them to consent, an application to the Court for a specific issue Order will be required. It would be usual for the Court to seek the view of the relevant health care professionals on what course of treatment would be in the child’s best interests, as part of the decision making process. Of course in an emergency either parent can give consent without the other parent, and in some situations if parents are not present doctors can act without consulting either parent; this is in immediate situations where medical treatment cannot be delayed.

When can the law intervene if parents refuse medical treatment for their child?

There are situations where the law can intervene if parents refuse medical treatment for their child. These situations typically arise when the child’s health or well-being is at serious risk. In such cases, doctors can ask the Court to step in and allow them to give medical treatment against the wishes of the parents, to protect the child’s best interests.

Factors considered by the Court include the severity of the child’s condition, the potential for harm and the availability of alternative treatments. Additionally, if the child is deemed to lack the capacity to make decisions about their own healthcare, the Court may intervene to ensure their well-being. This is known as Gillick competency.

Children who have not yet reached the age of 18 can be ‘Gillick competent’. This would mean they could, in some situations, override their parents’ views. The term ‘Gillick competent’ comes from the case of Gillick v West Norfolk & Wisbech Area Health Authority (1986) AC 112. This could be applied in more serious treatments and doctors can follow the wishes of Gillick competent children, contrary to their parent’s wishes.

Life-threatening situations and Court Orders

In life-threatening situations where parents refuse medical treatment for a child in the UK, the doctors can apply to the court to intervene to protect the child’s best interests. The process typically involves the Local Authority or healthcare professionals, such as the NHS Trust, applying to the Court for a specific issue order or care order.

This may include overriding parental decisions and authorising necessary medical treatment to ensure the child’s health and well-being. The Court’s primary concern is always the safety and welfare of the child.

A specific issue order can be made to ensure that a child receives medical treatment, even if the parents disagree. The Court would carefully consider the circumstances and make a decision in the best interests of the child’s health.

The practitioners must demonstrate to the court that the risk of the child not undergoing treatment is greater than the child receiving the recommended treatment.

A care order would grant the local authority parental responsibility for a child. It is usually sought when there are concerns about the child’s welfare or safety.

Child protective services (CPS) involvement

Child protection services play a crucial role in ensuring the safety and well-being of children. They investigate reports of child abuse or neglect and determine if intervention is necessary. Their actions may include providing support services to families or coordinating with other agencies to ensure the child’s needs are met.

Child protection services may get involved when parents legally refuse medical treatment for their child. Their involvement would ensure the child’s well-being and determine if the decision endangers the child. They assess the situation and may intervene if necessary. Before intervening, they consider several factors and this may include the severity of the child’s condition, the potential risks and benefits of the treatment, the child’s age and maturity, as well as opinions of medical professionals.

They consider the parents’ reasons for refusing treatment and assess whether the decision poses a significant risk to the child’s health and well-being.

Mental Health Concerns

When parents legally refuse medical treatment for a child, there can be mental health concerns. The child may experience emotional distress, or anxiety due to lack of necessary medical care. Similarly, parents may experience anxiety or fear when they refuse medical treatment for their child. They may question their decision, worry about the consequences, and struggle with the responsibility of making medical decisions for their child.

It can be emotionally challenging for the parents and it is important to seek support and guidance from healthcare professionals and mental health professionals to address their concerns.

It is important to consider the potential long-term impact on the child’s mental well-being when medical treatment is withheld. Child protection services may intervene to ensure the child’s mental health needs are addressed appropriately.

How do laws vary by jurisdiction regarding parents refusing medical treatment for their child?

Laws regarding parents refusing medical treatment for their child can vary by jurisdiction. Different countries may have different laws and regulations in place.

Other countries that have similar legal frameworks to the UK include Australia, New Zealand and Canada, as well as the United States.

However, in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Luxembourg and Sweden, there is no fixed minimum age requirement for consent to medical treatments. Each situation is treated individually depending on the maturity of the child.

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