Vaccinating Our Teenagers: What if we can’t agree?

There’s been a lot of controversy about whether those aged 12-15 should receive the COVID-19 vaccine. However, a specific issue for some separated parents is the question of consent.

With the news that the UK’s Chief Medical Officers have now recommended that teenagers should be vaccinated, what happens if you and your ex disagree on whether your child should get the vax – or any other significant medical decision?

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The relevant law in Scotland starts from the principle that the welfare of the child is the most important factor in any decision made about that child. What this means in practice will be different for different families, and individual circumstances need to be taken into account. However, it does mean that parents need to take a child-centred approach when exercising their parental rights and responsibilities.

Against that background, the law also expects parents to consult each other about major decisions affecting a child’s welfare. The child’s own views should be taken into account once he or she has reached an appropriate age and level of understanding. There is no specific age at which this requirement kicks in, but if a court was asked to make a decision about a child in the age group 12-15, it would certainly take account of his or her views about it.

Ideally, you and your ex, and your teenager, will be on the same page about the vaccine (that’s if teenagers are ever on the same page as their parents!) and if so, there’s no issue.

If there is a disagreement, however – about vaccination, or any other significant decision affecting a child – it is always useful to be aware of your legal options.

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One approach many separated parents use is mediation. A mediator is a neutral third party who has specific training in helping people to discuss and resolve disputes. He or she will facilitate a discussion between you and your ex-partner with a view to agreeing a practical way forward. The mediator will make sure both of you can have your say, but will concentrate on helping you find a solution rather than rehashing the past. Mediation can help separated parents to work together to resolve problems, and it’s usually much cheaper than going to court.

Ultimately, however, if you can’t break the deadlock, you can ask the court to resolve matters.

The courts in Scotland are generally reluctant to intervene in family life and can only make an order about a child if doing so would be better for the child than not doing so. While there’s an expectation that parents will do everything possible to resolve disputes themselves, that can’t always be achieved. If you genuinely can’t agree, one of you could ask the court to make a “Specific Issue Order”. This is exactly what it sounds like – an order governing a specific issue about a child arising from the exercise of parental rights and responsibilities.

Although the COVID19 vaccine is relatively new, the issues it presents are not – the parenting disputes which have been dealt with by using specific issue orders are as varied as whether one parent can move with the child to another country, what school the child should attend, or what medical treatment he or she should receive. At least in theory, a dispute about whether a 12-15-year old should receive the COVID-19 vaccine could be the subject of a specific issue order – there have been previous cases, mostly down south, where the court has ruled on whether a child should receive previous vaccines such as the MMR jab.

Hopefully, court will be a last resort for most families, but it’s always important to get specialist advice on your options. If you are involved in a dispute with your ex about any kind of parenting matter, we may be able to help – call us on 0131 467 5566 or email [email protected].

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