Under section 8 of the Children Act 1989, various applications can be made to the Court regarding children. As well as the more widely known residence orders, often referred to as custody, and contact orders, also known as access, there are other less well known orders available. These are prohibited steps orders, where the Court can prevent certain action being taken, and specific issue orders. Specific issue orders are defined in the Act as being “an order giving directions for the purpose of determining a specific question which has arisen, or which may arise, in connection with any aspect of parental responsibility for a child.”
Parental responsibility is “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.” This covers all the important decisions that parents have to make when deciding how to care for and raise their children.
But, of course, parents do not always agree. This is difficult enough when the parents are still together and can talk it through. Where parents are separated, reaching an agreement where there are two opposing views can be nigh on impossible. Whilst options such as mediation should be considered to try to resolve the dispute without Court proceedings, where no agreement can be reached the Court can be asked to decide the issue. The types of specific issue applications often faced by the Court include decisions as to schooling, medical treatment and religion.
The recently reported case of F v F  EWHC 2683 (Fam) deals with the issue of medical treatment, or to be precise the vaccination of the children in question against measles, mumps and rubella. The case emphasises that whilst the wishes and feelings of the children are a relevant factor, the factor of paramount importance is their welfare. The parents disagreed about whether their children should have the MMR vaccine, having previously decided against giving the booster to their older child or vaccinating the younger at all. The father subsequently changed his mind, citing the discredited report which raised concerns about the vaccine, and the recent outbreak of measles in Wales. In this case the two children aged 11 and 15 were against vaccination, a view which was made clear in a report to the Court. The Court welfare officer, from CAFCASS, who prepared the report found that the children did not fully appreciate all the benefits and risks and suggested caution should be taken in considering how much weight should be attached to their wishes.
The medical evidence known to the Court supported the use of the MMR vaccine, with “due consideration for established contraindications to vaccination in an individual case”. Taking this evidence into account, the judge made a declaration that it was in the interests of both children to have the vaccination, and ordered that it was to be carried out before a specific date.
This case serves as a useful reminder of the application of specific issue orders in practice, and which shows that whilst careful consideration must be given to competing views it is the welfare of the child which will always come first.
Image by Robert huffstutter under a Creative Commons Licence