Baby Charlie Gards parents lose Supreme Court appeal for US medical treatment

Claire Edgar

09 June 2017


The Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal made by the parents of sick baby Charlie Gard, over plans to take him to the US for experimental medical treatment.

Charlie suffers from a rare genetic condition called mitochondrial depletion syndrome. His parents Chris Gard and Connie Yates, both from London, want to take their 10-month-old son to the US to undergo a therapy trial there.

Earlier this year, both the High Court and Court of Appeal ruled in favour of medical staff at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, who said it was kinder for brain damaged Charlie to be given end-of-life care and that he should not be taken to the US for experimental treatment, despite his parents' wishes.

On 8th June 2017, the Supreme Court has also dismissed the couple’s latest challenge for their son to receive US medical treatment. Charlie’s parents have now made an emergency appeal to the European Court.

This case 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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