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COVID vaccines for under-16s : why competent children in the UK can legally decide for themselves

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20.09.2021

The UK has become the latest country to offer COVID-19 vaccines to all children aged 12 to 15, following many others including France, Germany, the US, Canada and Japan.

The UK government has said that parental consent will be sought for vaccinations, but that children can consent themselves (without parents) if deemed competent.

This has drawn heated debate. But the law on consent to medical treatment for under-16s is actually well established. Medical practitioners are authorised to assess a child’s competence to understand a treatment and consent to it, then to administer that treatment. This can take place even without the parents’ knowledge, provided that it is in the child’s best interests, and the children are what is known as “Gillick-competent”.

This refers to the 1985 Gillick legal case, which concerned a government circular sent to general practitioners clarifying that they were allowed to provide contraception to girls under 16 in certain circumstances (until then, it had been unclear whether they could).

A mother, who took exception to doctors having this power, took up a test case challenging it. In response, the highest court in the UK – then the House of Lords – clarified that children under 16 can consent on their own behalf to medical treatment where they are deemed to have, as the ruling put it, “sufficient understanding and intelligence” to do so.........

© The Conversation


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