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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 are no better examples of the difficulties faced by such parents than the cases in recent years involving involving five-year old cancer sufferer Aysha King and, more recently, baby Charlie Gard.

Both children became topics of much media and legal debate when their respective parents and doctors were at loggerheads as to the best way to medically treat both sick children.

Both cases beg the question : 

Who should have the ultimate say 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.

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.

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.

What if doctors and parents don’t agree on what is the best course of medical treatment for a child?

Where a doctor believes that a child’s parents are following a course of medical action which is not in the child’s interests, they can seek for the Court to decide 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, the parents can issue Court proceedings and ask the Court to decide what is in the child’s best interests.

What factors will a Court look at in these cases?

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 overriding consideration when looking at cases like this.

It is therefore unlikely that parents would be permitted by the Court to do the following:

  • To proceed with medical treatment which is thought to be inappropriate.

  • To refuse medical 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 making difficult decisions in their child’s best interests.  At Francis Hanna & Co, we can provide advice and assistance in such matters. Please contact us for a free, confidential, no obligation discussion on 028 9024 3901 or by email on