And so the conversation turned, until the sun went down
This is a High Court case involving parents who were already in care proceedings, who did not want their child to be vaccinated. (The decision not to vaccinate was not the reason for the care proceedings, and I think it’s unlikely that it would be considered threshold criteria.)
It helpfully gathers all of the other authorities and principles on vaccination, so although it is a case that turns on its facts (it is not authority for the Court always will or always won’t order vaccination to go ahead), it is useful if it comes up again. It also raises interesting philosophical questions about State intervention and parental autonomy.
Re SL (Permission to vaccinate) 2017
SL was seven months old, and one of four siblings within care proceedings. He was the subject of an Interim Care Order.
The local authority now applies under the inherent jurisdiction for a declaration that it is in SL’s best interests for the local authority to be given permission to arrange for him to receive the Haemophilus Influenza Type b (Hib) vaccine (hereafter, the ‘Hib’ vaccine) and the pneumococcal conjugate (PCV) vaccine (hereafter the ‘PCV’ vaccine) in circumstances where the mother objects to this course of action.
It is something of a law geek pleasure to see that the Dr in the case was a Dr De Keyser, and the advocates in the case would be made of stronger stuff than me if they avoided any temptation to fall into the ‘you say de keyser, I say de Geezer’ dialogue from the Supreme Court article 50 case.
The mother’s opposition to the vaccination was because she considered that her older children had suffered adverse reactions to their own vaccinations
- The mother’s opposition to SL being given the Hib vaccine and the PCV vaccine is based primarily on adverse reactions to being so immunised that she states that her other children have undergone in the past. Professor Kroll was accordingly also asked to consider whether there is anything in the older children’s medical records that causes him concern regarding SL receiving the disputed immunisations. Professor Kroll, being careful to note that the abbreviated medical records provided to him may not be complete, makes clear that in none of the records he reviewed relating to SL’s siblings detail any significant adverse reaction to vaccination in general or to Hib or PCV vaccination in particular in any of the children. Professor Kroll further opines that even had there been evidence in the medical records of some reaction, this would not, in general, constitute a medical contraindication to vaccinating SL.
- Within the foregoing context, Professor Kroll concludes that there is no medical reason why SL ought not to have the vaccinations in issue according to the UK immunisation schedule. He further concludes that withholding the Hib and PCV vaccines for SL would mean deliberately maintaining his vulnerability, which is at its maximum given his present age, to two very serious infections which are major causes of infection, including bacterial meningitis. Professor Kroll is clear that whilst not providing total protection, a full course of vaccination provides a “very substantial degree” of protection against these infections. He concludes that, in his expert medical opinion, SL needs to be immunised without delay and to receive booster immunisations at the appropriate time.
The LA argued that the Court should use their
inherent jurisdiction but they meant “Magical Sparkle Powers TM” to direct that the child should have vaccinations
- On behalf of the local authority, Ms Markham QC and Ms Georges submit that the local authority should be given permission to ensure that SL receives the Hib vaccine and the PCV vaccine, the administration of such vaccines being in his best interests. Developing this submission, in particular Ms Markham QC and Ms Georges argue that:
(a) The local authority acknowledges the mother’s views regarding the immunisation of SL. The local authority further recognises that the declaration it seeks trespasses on the mother’s Art 8 right to respect for her private and family life insofar as the decision whether or not to immunise a child is ordinarily a function of the exercise of parental responsibility.
(b) On the evidence before the court however, the balance of risk is clear. Namely, the expert evidence indicates clearly that the risk attendant on giving the vaccines to SL are outweighed by the risks of not giving them to him, in particular when regard is had to the likely gravity of the consequences of the former when compared to potential gravity of the consequences of the latter.
(c) Moreover, on the evidence before the court, the decision whether to immunise SL against Hib and pneumococcal infections is not a finely balanced one. Rather, it is plain on the evidence before the court that vaccination is in his best interests.
(d) Had the local authority received further information or evidence suggesting that there was some doubt, or a finer balance with respect to the question of whether SL should receive the vaccines in issue, the local authority may have changed its position. However, no such information or evidence has materialised notwithstanding the directions of the court.
The mother’s legal team made these submissions
- Ms Connolly QC and Ms Gill made the following submissions on behalf of the mother:
(a) Applications for a declaration that it is in the child’s best interests to receive vaccinations are rare. In respect of the decision whether or not to vaccinate a child, parents are accorded a significant degree of autonomy by the State. Ordinarily, a parent in the position of the mother would get to decide whether to have a child immunised as a function of the exercise of that parent’s parental responsibility and would not be brought to court if the parental decision were that the vaccinations should not be given.
(b) The mother relies on three alleged instances of her older children attending hospital following what the mother contends were adverse reactions to immunisation. Whilst the mother has not produced the records associated with these attendances (or, it must be observed, evidence that such records were requested but unavailable), and whilst none of the asserted instances are referred to in the records reviewed by Professor Kroll, she asserts to the court that VL suffered a swollen leg, that DL suffered an ear infection and the CL developed a rash.
(c) The mother’s objections, and the extent to which they are reasonable, must be viewed in the context of the particular matters with which these proceedings are concerned, albeit matters wholly unrelated to the issue of immunisation, and in the context of the SL not being in her care, which factors heighten the mother’s concerns regarding the administration of the vaccines to SL in the context of the alleged adverse reactions experienced by SL’s siblings.
(d) Whilst the consequences of SL catching the diseases, which the respective vaccines are designed to protect against are potentially grave, risk of SL catching the diseases against which the vaccines protect is low, as is the risk that the diseases will have a grave outcome if SL were to catch them.
(e) Within this context, the mother’s considered decision with respect to the vaccination of SL should be respected by the court and the application of the local authority dismissed having regard to the legal principles applicable to that application.
On behalf of the child
- On behalf of SL, Mr Tughan QC and Ms Piccos submit that it is plainly in SL’s best interests for the outstanding vaccinations to be given to him. As does the local authority, on behalf of SL Mr Tughan QC and Ms Piccos recognise that a parent is, ordinarily, accorded a significant degree of autonomy by the State in deciding in the exercise of their parental responsibility whether to vaccinate a child. However, in circumstances where there is a dispute between those holding parental responsibility for SL (namely, the mother and the local authority) such that the court is required to determine that dispute by reference to SL’ best interests, Mr Tughan QC and Ms Piccos submit that the evidence before the court indicates that the balance of risk falls firmly in favour of SL receiving the vaccinations on the UK Immunisation Schedule that he has not received to date.
- With respect to the weight to be attached to the views of the mother, Mr Tughan QC and Ms Piccos submit that the court must consider these views through the prism of the aspects of the mother’s personality identified in the expert evidence in the 2014 proceedings, specifically an obsessive compulsive personality disorder with schizoid personality traits, paranoid personality features and narcissistic personality features.
I have an unusual position here. My position is that of course children should be vaccinated, and that the scare stories about vaccination lack any proper evidential rigour. However, my position is also that parents have the capacity to make decisions about their children and their medical treatment even if those decisions are ones that others might consider reckless or stupid or foolhardy. I don’t see that the parent should lose that capacity and have it taken away from them at an INTERIM stage. It might be different if the Court conclude the care proceedings and make final orders meaning that the child will be cared for elsewhere during the remainder of their childhood. But I’d have said that here, autonomy trumps my view that vaccination benefits children, and society. I would possibly draw a distinction where the child is being denied medical treatment by a parent’s decision which is causing the child pain, harm, suffering or puts their life in danger. But that wasn’t the case here – vaccination would protect the child from a possible future risk, but this child was in no imminent danger. That’s just my own personal view, which is worth nothing at all, but just to let you know where I’m coming from.
- As Ms Connolly QC and Ms Gill point out, applications of this nature are rare and there are only a limited number of reported decisions concerning the issue of immunisation.
- In Re C (Welfare of Child: Immunisation)  2 FLR 1054, a case which considered a dispute between two parents with parental responsibility within the context of the framework provided by s 8 of the Children Act 1989, Sumner J held that the children concerned should receive immunisations appropriate to their age against the wishes of the mother but in line with the recommendation of the expert medical evidence before the court (which in that case included a report from Dr Kroll instructed by CAFCASS Legal). Sumner J’s decision was upheld on appeal. In in Re C (Welfare of Child: Immunisation)  2 FLR 1095, Thorpe LJ rejected the repeated categorisation of the course of immunisation as non-essential invasive treatment and considered it to be more correctly categorised as preventative healthcare. Within this context, he observed that:
“ The apparent freedom of each [parent] to act alone is not, however, unfettered. As Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss P said in the case of Re J (Specific Issue Orders: Child’s Religious Upbringing and Circumcision)  1 FLR 571 at 577D:
‘There is, in my view, a small group of important decisions made on behalf of a child which, in the absence of agreement of those with parental responsibility, ought not to be carried out or arranged by one parent carer although she has parental responsibility under s 2(7) of the Children Act 1989. Such a decision ought not to be made without the specific approval of the court. Sterilisation is one example. The change of a child’s surname is another.’
 In that case the court held that the circumcision of the child should only be carried out where the parents agree or where a court, in settling the dispute between them, decides that the operation is in the best interests of the child. In my opinion this appeal demonstrates that hotly contested issues of immunisation are to be added to that ‘small group of important decisions’.
 Of course where the obligation falls on the court to decide such an issue the court must apply the child’s welfare as its paramount consideration (s 1(1) of the Children Act 1989) and also have regard to the s 1(3) checklist.”
- At first instance in Re C (Welfare of Child: Immunisation) Sumner J made clear that he had had regard to the wide scope for parental opposition to medical intervention in respect of a child, which he summarised as ranging from obvious cases where the objection would be widely regarded as having no validity in child welfare terms to cases where there is scope for genuine debate on the issue. Within this context, Sumner J acknowledged a parent’s right to choose whether they accepted medical advice to have their children immunised and that immunisation was a subject of genuine public debate. Sumner J further made clear that his decision should not be seen as a general approval of immunisation for children and that each case is fact specific.
- In Re A, B, C and D (Welfare of Children: Immunisation)  EWHC 4033 (Fam), Theis J considered the issue of vaccinations in the context of children who were the subject of final care orders, where the dispute was between the local authority, who shared parental responsibility under those orders, and the parents with parental responsibility as to whether the children should be vaccinated. Within this context, Theis J proceeded to determine the question under the auspice of the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court. She concluded the children in that case should be vaccinated. Theis J articulated the following applicable legal principles:
“ There is no dispute between the parties as to the law. Once the inherent jurisdiction is invoked the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration.
 The Court of Appeal in Re J (A Minor) (Wardship: Medical Treatment)  1 FLR 366 considered the future medical management of a severely brain-damaged premature baby with a considerably shortened life expectancy. Lord Donaldson MR said at 370 ‘…The court, when exercising the parens patriae jurisdiction, takes over the rights and duties of the parents, although this is not to say that the parents will be excluded from the decision-making process. Nevertheless, in the end, the responsibility for the decision whether to give or to withhold consent is that of the court alone.’
 In this case the dispute is the exercise of parental responsibility as between the parents and the Local Authority. I have been referred to a number of cases that look at how the parent’s views should be considered by the court. In Re Z (A Minor)(Freedom of Publication)  1 FLR 191 Sir Thomas Bingham MR said at 217 B-C:
‘I would for my part accept without reservation that the decision of a devoted and responsible parent should be treated with respect. It should certainly not be disregarded or lightly set aside. But the role of the court is to exercise an independent and objective judgment. If that judgment is in accord with that of the devoted and responsible parent, well and good. If it is not, then it is the duty of the court, after giving due weight to the view of the devoted and responsible parent, to give effect to its own judgment. That is what it is there for. Its judgment may of course be wrong. So may that of the parent. But once the jurisdiction of the court is invoked its clear duty is to reach and express the best judgment it can’.
In Re T (Wardship: Medical Treatment)  1 FLR 502 Butler Sloss P said at 509 that
‘…it is clear that when an application under the inherent jurisdiction is made to the court the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration. The consent or refusal of consent of the parents is an important consideration to weigh in the balancing exercise to be carried out by the judge. In that context the extent to which the court will have regard to the view of the parent will depend upon the court’s assessment of that view. But as Sir Thomas Bingham MR said in Re Z, the court decides and in doing so may overrule the decision of a reasonable parent’.
 The court also has to carefully consider Article 8 of the European Convention and, in particular, consider whether what is proposed is a justified and proportionate interference with family life.”
- Within the context of the last point elucidated by Theis J concerning rights under Art 8 of the ECHR, Art 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that States parties to that Convention recognise the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and, within that context, imposes on States parties an obligation to pursue full implementation of that right, including the taking of appropriate measures to combat disease.
- The most recent decision on immunisation appears to be a further decision of Theis J in the case of F v F (MMR Vaccine)  1 FLR 1328. In that case, Theis J made the following important observation in relation to cases of this nature at :
“This is an issue concerning the exercise of parental responsibility that in most circumstances is negotiated between the parents and their decision put into effect. Parents often have to make decisions for children to meet their welfare needs, as Ms Vivian observed that is ‘what parenting is about’. As with many aspects of the exercise of parental responsibility, in particular as children get older, it will often require discussion and explanation by the parents of their decision to their children which may be against their wishes and feelings. This has not been possible in this case as the parents disagree and the court has been asked to step in to make the decision. The court can only make decisions on the evidence that it has in each particular case and by considering the welfare needs of each child. By doing so in this case the court does not in any way dictate how this issue should be decided in other situations; each case is fact specific. This case is only concerned with the welfare needs of these children.”
- Thus, where there is a dispute between those holding parental responsibility (whether as between parents or between parents and a local authority holding a care order) as to whether such a vaccination or vaccinations should take place the court has jurisdiction to determine the dispute. In determining the question before the court, the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration of the court. Within this context, the court must accord appropriate weight to the views of the parent or parents having assessed those views and must exercise an independent and objective judgment on the basis of the totality of the evidence before it, including, but not limited to, the expert evidence.
- In this case the court is concerned with the issue of vaccinations in the context of children who are the subject of care orders and thus the dispute is between the local authority sharing parental responsibility for the child and the parent with parental responsibility. In the circumstances where SL is in the care of the local authority, by virtue of s 9(1) of the Children Act 1989 the local authority cannot apply for a specific issue order with respect to the issue of vaccination. Further, given the gravity of the issue in dispute, it is not appropriate for the local authority simply to give its consent to immunisation pursuant to the provisions of s 33(3) of the Children Act 1989 on the basis of its shared parental responsibility for SL under the interim care order (see A Local Authority v SB, AB & MB)  2 FLR 1203 and Re Jake (Withholding Medical Treatment)  EWHC 2442 (Fam)).
- In the circumstances, as in Re A, B, C and D (Welfare of Children: Immunisation)  EWHC 4033 (Fam), and whilst the C2 application made by the local authority on 21 October 2016 is for an order in existing Children Act proceedings, the application the local authority pursues before this court must in fact be an application for relief under the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court. The local authority requires leave to make such an application, which application for leave is to be considered against the criteria set out in s 100(4) of the Children Act 1989. Being satisfied that the relief sought by the local authority does not contravene s 100(2) of the Children Act 1989 and that the criteria for granting leave to the local authority to make an application under the inherent jurisdiction set out in s 100(4) of the Act are met, I granted permission for the local authority to make an application for relief under the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court.
- I acknowledge Ms Connolly QC and Ms Gill’s submission that parents are ordinarily accorded a significant degree of autonomy when deciding whether to have their child immunised as a function of the exercise of their parental responsibility. Whilst, historically, vaccination was compelled by law under the Vaccination Act 1853 and subsequent legislation, vaccination is not now compulsory in this jurisdiction, the Vaccination Act 1898 having introduced an exception allowing parents who did not believe vaccination was efficacious or safe to obtain a certificate of exemption (introducing the concept of the “conscientious objector” into English law) and the National Health Service Act 1946 having thereafter repealed the compulsory vaccination laws in their entirety. However, I cannot accept Ms Connolly QC and Ms Gill’s submission that, ordinarily, a parent in the position of the mother (my emphasis) would get to decide whether to have a child immunised as a function of the exercise of her parental responsibility.
- The fact that this court is required to decide whether SL should be immunised is, in this case, a function of a dispute between those who hold of parental responsibility for SL, namely the mother and the local authority (the identity of SL’s father not being known). Where there is such a dispute the court is under an obligation to determine that dispute in accordance with the legal principles articulated above. That determination is not an example of overreaching by the State into an area of parental choice but, rather, is an example of the court discharging its obligation to ensure the welfare of the child is safeguarded in circumstances where those charged with meeting the child’s welfare needs cannot agree on how that end is best achieved. Again, as Theis J noted in Re A, B, C and D (Welfare of Children: Immunisation), in Re Z (A Minor)(Freedom of Publication)  1 FLR 191 Sir Thomas Bingham MR said at 217 B-C:
“I would for my part accept without reservation that the decision of a devoted and responsible parent should be treated with respect. It should certainly not be disregarded or lightly set aside. But the role of the court is to exercise an independent and objective judgment. If that judgment is in accord with that of the devoted and responsible parent, well and good. If it is not, then it is the duty of the court, after giving due weight to the view of the devoted and responsible parent, to give effect to its own judgment. That is what it is there for. Its judgment may of course be wrong. So may that of the parent. But once the jurisdiction of the court is invoked its clear duty is to reach and express the best judgment it can”.
- Thus, the fact that parents are ordinarily accorded a significant degree of autonomy when deciding whether to have their child immunised as a function of the exercise of their parental responsibility where there is no dispute between them, and the fact that, accordingly, this issue rarely comes before the court, does not, in circumstances where there is in this case a frank disagreement between her and the local authority as to what is in SL’s best interests, mean that this mother is being somehow singled out as compared to other parents with respect to the issue of vaccination.
- The fact that parents are ordinarily accorded a significant degree of autonomy when deciding whether to have their child immunised as a function of the exercise of their parental responsibility where there is no dispute does, however, mean that when the issue has to come before the court, the court must accord proper weight to the views of the parent. I have of course given very careful consideration to the mother’s objections to vaccination. It is not difficult to see how the, albeit unrelated, events with which this court is concerned have focused her mind on the potential risks of vaccination to SL’s wellbeing. The mother has decided that those risks outweigh the risks of not vaccinating SL. A parent is fully entitled to make a decision based on their assessment of the likelihood of infection and how severe that infection might be in terms of outcome.
- However, I must and do have regard to the fact that the mother’s evaluation does not accord with the expert medical evidence before the court. Indeed, that medical evaluation reaches a diametrically opposed view. Whilst welfare is a very wide concept, and whilst the principle of best interests means more than just medical best interests, the unchallenged conclusions of the expert instructed to assist the court on the question of immunisation are, necessarily, a powerful pointer towards what is in SL’s best interests on the question of immunisation. I must also have regard to the fact that, whilst the mother submits that her considered view is grounded in her direct experience of adverse reactions in her other children, she has not in any way evidenced the factual basis she contends grounds her reasoned evaluation of the risks on this basis, despite being given every opportunity to do so. These matters significantly reduce the weight I am able to attach to the mother’s views in respect of the vaccination of SL as against the evidence of the expert.
- Lastly in respect of the mother’s views, whilst I note the submissions of Mr Tughan QC and Ms Piccos regarding the impact of the expert opinion in the 2014 proceedings regarding the mother’s personality traits, in circumstances where I have not heard evidence on how those matters may impact on the mother’s views on the subject matter presently before the court, I make clear that I have not taken account of those matters when evaluating the mother’s views and the weight to attach to them.
- Within the foregoing context, having regard to all of the evidence before the court and evaluating the position by reference to the principle that SL’s welfare is the court’s paramount consideration, I am satisfied that it is in SL’s best interests to receive the outstanding Hib and PCV vaccines.
- Finally, I have, as I must, paid careful regard to the Art 8 right of the mother to respect for her family life. A decision by the court (as a public authority pursuant to s 6(3)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998) to authorise the immunisation of SL in the face of the mother’s objection, and in circumstances where parents are ordinarily accorded a significant degree of autonomy by the State when deciding whether to have their child immunised as a function of the exercise of their parental responsibility where there is no dispute, constitutes an interference in the mother’s Art 8 right to respect for family life. For that interference to be lawful it must be justified by reference to the terms of Art 8(2). Having regard to the evidence set out above, I am satisfied that the interference in the mother’s right to respect for family life under Art 8 constituted by a decision of this court to authorise the immunisation of SL against her wishes is in accordance with the law and necessary in a democratic society in the interests protecting SL’s health and, accordingly, is a justified and proportionate interference. I am reinforced in this conclusion by the fact that a decision to authorise the immunisation of SL accords with his right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health under Art 24 of the UNCRC.
- For the reasons I have given, I am satisfied that it is appropriate in this case to make a declaration under the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court that it is in SL’s best interests for the local authority to be given permission to arrange for him to receive the Hib vaccine and the PCV vaccine and I do so.
- Finally, I make clear that the decision of the court is not a judgment on whether immunisation is a good thing or bad thing generally. Like Sumner J and Theis J before me, I emphasise that the court is not saying anything about the merits of vaccination more widely and does not in any way seek to dictate how this issue should be approached in other situations. This judgment is concerned solely with an evaluation of one child’s best interests based on the very particular circumstances of this case and on the evidence that is available to the court.
- That is my judgment.
I think this case was rightly decided on the law as it stands. I’m not sure I’m happy with the law as it stands. Here we have a position where a parent who is not in care proceedings gets to say yay or nay to vaccinations and their decision will be sacrosanct, but a parent who is in care proceedings (perhaps with allegations of threshold which are not finally proven) does not have that same right. I think the right thing for the child was to be vaccinated, but I think as ever with magical sparkle powers, the Court does things with the very best of intentions which end up being the foundation for the next step away from autonomy, and the next step becomes foundation for the one after.