Can the court force you to vaccinate your children?
The continuing roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme has brought back the debate on the safety and long-term implications of administrating vaccines.
And as the UK regulator approves the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in children aged 12-15, saying it is safe and effective in this age group and the benefits outweigh any risks, the current situation shines a spotlight on the difficulties separated parents may face if they have very different beliefs about childhood vaccinations.
Similar to when Andrew Wakefield released his false conclusions that the MMR vaccine could be linked directly to autism, a minority of people fundamentally opposed to vaccinations have found a voice.
The speed at which vaccines for Covid-19 have been approved appears to be at the root of concerns. People who may have previously been pro-vaccine may now have doubts – particularly parents considering vaccinating their children.
What is the law on vaccines?
Vaccines are not compulsory by law.
However, there have been several recent court cases that have dealt with childhood vaccinations, including Re H (A Child: Parental Responsibility: Vaccination, a case where a local authority wanted to vaccinate a child in its care against the father’s wishes; and M v H and P and T  EWFC 93, a private law case where the judge ruled that NHS scheduled vaccinations (i.e. MMR and others) were in the best interests of the children despite the mother’s objection.
The general principles from the family court are that if the vaccine is approved by the regulator and in the child’s best interests, the court will almost certainly rule in favour of administering the vaccine.
Putting aside the arguments for and against, from a child law perspective, this issue is no different from other issues that can arise between parents regarding what the law terms as “specific issues” about their children. These include decisions about which school they should go to, what religious education they should receive or the medical treatment they should have.
So what options do you have if you cannot agree on ‘specific issues’ with your ex-partner?
Resolve between yourselves
The best approach, if possible, is for parents to agree directly with each other on any arrangements and specific issues as they are the right people to make decisions concerning their children.
Family counselling or mediation
However, this is not possible in certain situations, and the introduction of a neutral third-party can help.
Some separated parents can benefit from family counselling and other alternative dispute resolutions services, including mediation and collaborative law.
These routes can reduce the time and cost for everyone, avoid protracted court proceedings, benefit future relationships, have a far higher success rate, and put the child’s best interests first.
Going to court
If all else fails, then the decision will have to be passed to the family courts.
The Court can order what is known as a Specific Issue Order under Section 8 of the Children Act 1989.
In these circumstances, the Court will have to determine the issues based on what it believes to be in the children’s best interest and not necessarily what the parents want.
The court has particular regard to the factors at section s1 (3) of the Children Act 1989, the welfare checklist, namely:
- Wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of his age and understanding);
- Physical, emotional and educational needs;
- Likely effect on him of any change in his circumstances;
- Age, sex and background;
- Any harm or risk of suffering;
- The range of powers available to the court
At the moment, children are not due to be vaccinated against Covid-19. However, if the Covid-19 vaccination is approved for children and added to the NHS list of childhood vaccination, we may see an influx of applications for a specific issue order for a child to have the vaccine being made to the courts.
Considering the current backlog at the family courts, exacerbated by the pandemic, where possible, it always preferable for parents to resolve matters outside of the courts.
Get in touch
If you would like any legal advice as you cannot agree on ‘specific issues’ with your ex-partner please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist divorce lawyers here.