What can you do if your ex will not agree to vaccinate your children?

The Covid-19 vaccines could finally bring an end to this third, challenging national lockdown. While children are not yet in line to receive any of the approved vaccines, the situation has raised a difficult question. If the vaccines are not mandatory, what happens if parents cannot agree on whether to vaccinate their children?

Disagreeing over vaccinations is a common issue between separated parents, particularly in recent years with the rise of “anti-vaxxer” rhetoric which is shared swiftly and widely over social media.

So, if your ex is refusing to let your children be vaccinated – whether it is a theoretical disagreement over the Covid-19 vaccine or an existing argument over childhood vaccinations (such as the MMR vaccines) – what can you do?

Can you choose whether to vaccinate your children?

You are not legally required to vaccinate your children, however, the NHS highly recommends that you do in line with their vaccination schedule.

Thanks to vaccines, dangerous and sometimes fatal diseases such as smallpox and polio have mostly or completely disappeared.

Scientific evidence shows that vaccinations are completely safe. However, it is becoming more common for people to reject vaccines due to concerns over safety. For information about vaccine safety, visit the NHS website.

As well as recommended childhood vaccinations, parents can choose to get their children additional vaccines. For example, if you take your children abroad, they may need vaccinations for diseases which are uncommon in the UK. If you go private, you can get vaccinations not routinely offered on the NHS, such as the chicken pox vaccine.

Whether getting additional vaccinations is in the best interests of children is debatable and will usually depend on individual circumstances.

Do you need your co-parent’s consent to vaccinate your children?

As a parent with parental responsibility, you have the rights and responsibilities to make decisions for and about your children. You will usually share parental responsibility with your children’s other parent, meaning you should make decisions about their upbringing together.

For simple, everyday matters, you do not need to consult anybody (e.g. you do not need to call up your ex to get their consent to give your children toast for breakfast instead of porridge).

However, for big decisions, such as decisions about medical treatment and healthcare, everyone with parental responsibility needs to consent. You cannot simply go ahead with vaccinating your children if your co-parent disagrees.

So, what are your options?

Resolving a dispute about vaccinating children can be tricky because it is not really possible to compromise – the children cannot be half vaccinated.

Your options for resolving the dispute are:

  • Talk to a specialist family law solicitor
  • Go to mediation
  • Apply to court for a Specific Issue Order

In some cases, a family law solicitor or qualified mediator may be able to help you talk through the issues with your ex and why they are opposed to vaccination. However, if your ex will not come around to your way of thinking, the only option may be a court application.

How does the court decide whether children should be vaccinated?

If you cannot agree with your ex about whether your children should be vaccinated, you can apply to court for a Specific Issue Order to allow you to get them vaccinated anyway.

There have been many court cases over the years, often involving whether the child or children should have the MMR vaccine. 

Whatever the background of the case, the court will only ever make a decision that is in the best interests of the child, taking into account factors such as their:

  • Age, sex, background and any other relevant characteristics
  • Wishes and feelings (in light of their age and understanding)
  • Physical, educational and emotional needs
  • Any harm the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering

In most cases, the court will encourage the parents to come to a decision between themselves, even after a Specific Issue Order application has been made. However, where vaccinations are concerned, the court is often prepared to go ahead and make an order, particularly if the vaccinations are overdue.

For example, in a 2018 case involving a five year old girl, the judge said that the father’s decision not to vaccinate was “unreliable” and “at odds” with medical experts. He therefore ruled that the child should have her MMR vaccine, influenza vaccine, and diphtheria/tetanus/polio vaccine.

Travel vaccinations

Whether getting vaccinations to travel abroad is in the best interests of children will depend on individual circumstances. This question may also be considered in the wider context of whether the child can be taken abroad at all. For example, if a parent consents to their child going to live abroad but does not consent to them getting vaccinations recommended to visit that country, they the court may decide it is in the child’s best interests to be vaccinated.

Cases involving older children

Older children will usually have their own thoughts and feelings about their health and medical treatment. In fact, children aged 16 and 17 are legally trusted to make their own decisions. Children over 13 years old may be able to make their own decisions, but it will depend on the circumstances of the case.

For example, in the case of F v F in 2013, the children were aged 11 and 15. Their mother did not want to vaccinate, the father did. The children were angry with their father and did not want vaccinations because they were concerned about the ingredients. However, the judge ruled that the children were influenced by their mother’s beliefs and should receive their vaccinations.

How will the court decide whether children should get the Covid-19 vaccine?

In December 2020, a judge made a Specific Issue Order stating that two children should receive their childhood vaccinations.

He declined to rule on whether they should also get the Covid-19 vaccine if and when it is recommended for children. However, he did state that:

‘It is very difficult to foresee a situation in which a vaccination against Covid-19 approved for use in children would not be endorsed by the court as being in a child's best interests.’

So, this suggests that if judges are ever required to make decisions about whether a child should have the Covid-19 vaccine, unless there is evidence that suggests it is unsafe for children in general or the individual child concerned, it is likely that a Specific Issue Order would be made.

Do you need help resolving a family dispute about vaccinations?

At Atkins Hope, our friendly and highly experienced family law solicitors are here to help you find a positive solution.

We regularly make court applications on behalf of parents and provide all the advice and support they need throughout the process.

For further information, give us a call at your local Atkins Hope office in Croydon, Medway or Blackheath.