When Parents and Medics Collide

Claire Edgar

29 September 2014

When Parents and Medics Collide: Lessons from the Aysha King Case

Caring for a sick child comes with the territory of being a parent.  From teething, to the latest stomach bug to hit the school playground, all of us will have spent many a sleepless night nursing a crying child, trying our best to comfort them and wishing that there was something more we could do to make them feel better.

Thankfully for most of us, a child’s sickness is fleeting – coughs are soon replaced by chuckles, and peace (as well as sleep!) returns to your home.   However, for parents faced with looking after a seriously or chronically ill child, life is much more challenging.

There is no better example of the difficulties faced by such parents than the recent case involving five-year old cancer sufferer Aysha King.  Aysha became the topic of much media and legal debate when his parents removed him from a Southampton hospital during his treatment for a brain tumour.  They took Aysha abroad in a bid to secure alternative treatment for him in Spain. It was reported that this treatment was unavailable on the NHS but it was treatment that they, as Aysha’s parents, strongly believed would help Aysha.   

The King family would say that they were trying to do what they believed was best for their very ill son.  The UK authorities disagreed and legal applications were made seeking the return of Aysha to the UK against his parent’s wishes.

The case involving Aysha and his family highlights the difficulties faced when parents and doctors are at loggerheads as to the best way to medically treat a minor child.  It begs the question - Who should have the ultimate authority when it comes to deciding what is best for a child in terms of medical care?

In Northern Ireland, parents or relatives with ‘parental responsibility’ of a child have the right to consent to medical treatment on behalf of that child, provided the treatment is in the best interests of the child.

‘Parental responsibility’ is a term used in law to refer to the rights, duties, powers and responsibilities that most parents have in respect of their children.  There are various ways in which parental responsibility can be acquired both by biological parents and other relatives.  

In the vast majority of cases, both the parents and the medical professionals treating a child will be in agreement as to the best course of treatment for a child.  Furthermore in practice, doctors are reluctant to override a parent’s strongly held views, particularly where both the advantages and disadvantages of treatment are finely balanced and it is unclear as to what is in the child’s best interests.   

However, occasions do arise where health professionals and parents do not agree on what is the best course of treatment for a child.  What happens then?

Where a doctor believes that a child’s parents are following a course of action which is contrary to the child’s interests, they can seek the Court’s adjudication on what is best for the child; meanwhile they will provide only emergency treatment to the child to preserve life or prevent serious deterioration in their condition.  

Likewise, should parents wish a child to have treatment which a doctor feels is inappropriate, they can issue Court proceedings and ask the Court to decide what is in the child’s best interests.  

When considering all cases of this nature, the Court shall have regard to the human rights of both the parents and child.   Ultimately, however, the Court will consider the child’s welfare as the paramount consideration.  As such, it is unlikely that parents would be permitted by the Court to proceed with treatment which is deemed inappropriate or to refuse treatment which is in the child’s best interests.  For example, where a child requires a blood transfusion to treat a serious illness, the refusal to agree to this treatment by a parent who objects because of their beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness is unlikely to be deemed by the Court to be in the child’s best interests.

It goes without saying that in the event of a dispute between parents and medical professionals, all possible alternatives should be discussed thoroughly between the parties in an effort to reach an agreement before seeking the Court’s intervention.

Sympathetic and sound legal advice during this challenging time can help support parents make difficult decisions in their child’s best interests.

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