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Family law

Do I have to vaccinate my child? – Ian Walker

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Walker Family Law
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Do I have to vaccinate my child?

The issue of vaccination is of course a hot topic these days. We are all hoping that the search for a vaccine against Covid-19 will be successful, so that we can return to our normal lives.

But there are some who do not always agree with vaccination, even if it against a disease as serious as Covid-19. Of course, if they are simply saying that they do not wish to be vaccinated themselves, then that is their choice (unless the vaccine is legally compulsory, which is not the case with any currently available vaccine).

But what if their opposition to vaccination extends to their child? What happens, for example, if one parent wants the child to be vaccinated, and the other parent does not?

The issue has been raised in a number of cases, mostly in relation to the MMR vaccine. Just last week it cropped up in the Court of Appeal, albeit in that case the child was in care, and the dispute was between the local authority, which wanted the child to be vaccinated, and the parents, who did not. Here, we will just be looking at ‘private law’ cases, i.e. children cases in which the local authority is not involved.


Vaccination and parental responsibility person getting vaccinated

The search for the answer to the question ‘Do I have to vaccinate my child?’ begins with the issue of parental responsibility.

“Parental responsibility” is defined as: “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property.” Clearly, the decision as to whether a child should be vaccinated is an exercise of parental responsibility, and thus is a matter for anyone having parental responsibility for the child.

The mother will always have parental responsibility for a child, and the father will also have parental responsibility if he was married to the mother. Unmarried fathers can obtain parental responsibility in a variety of ways, which we will not go into here – suffice to say that it is very rare these days that an unmarried father will not be able to obtain parental responsibility if he seeks it. We will therefore assume for the purpose of this article that both parents have parental responsibility.

The next issue is: if both parents do have parental responsibility, can one of them decide alone whether or not their child should be vaccinated, without reference to the other parent?

Clearly, there are some decisions relating to a child that one parent can take alone. It would be absurd if separated parents had to consult each other before making any decision relating to their child. However, there are some major decisions that the courts have said should be decided upon by the court if the parents do not agree, and one such decision is whether or not the child should be vaccinated.

In short, if the parents agree that their child should not be vaccinated, then that is usually the end of the matter, but if they do not agree, the issue will have to be decided by the court.


How the court decides a vaccination disputevaccination of the world

As with any other kind of case, the court will be guided by the evidence, and that includes the views of the parent opposing vaccination.

The most important evidence, however, is the scientific evidence. If the scientific evidence clearly establishes that it is in the best medical interests of the child to be vaccinated, then the court will almost certainly follow that evidence, unless there is a specific contra-indication in an individual case.

Obviously, the scientific evidence will usually indicate that it is in the best medical interests of the child to be vaccinated. Accordingly, courts will normally order that the child be vaccinated, except where there are significant features which suggest that, unusually, it may not be in the best interests of the child to be vaccinated.

As mentioned, the views of the parent opposing immunisation will be taken into account, but those views will not determine the matter, unless they have a real bearing on the child’s welfare.


Getting advice

If you are in dispute with the other parent over whether your child should be vaccinated, then you should seek the advice of an expert family lawyer. We have the experts to provide that advice. To find out more, and to get started with one of our specialist lawyers, click here.