Vaccination for Covid 19 is one of the most divisive issues currently facing Australian society and in many other countries around the globe.

It is difficult to recall any issue that has been so characterised by divergent opinion, censorship, extraordinary new Government powers, authoritarian policing and uncertainty surrounding the efficacy of the vaccinations.

The most controversial proposed recipients for the vaccines are children, especially given that it has been widely reported the risk to children from Covid 19 is less than the seasonal flu.

In these circumstances it is unsurprising that parents may have a different view on what is best for their child in terms of risk of Covid 19, risk from vaccination, and the ability to access services stemming from Government mandates restricting the freedoms of the unvaccinated.

Equal shared parental responsibility

The decision on whether to vaccinate a child is a medical decision and a major long-term issue as defined in section 4 Family Law Act 1975 (“the Act”).

As such where a Court has made an order allocating equal shared parental responsibility parents have obligation created by the Act in section 65DAC to consult with each other regarding the decision, make a genuine effort to reach a joint decision and that the decision be made jointly.

Where parents can’t reach a joint decision, the Court can make in order with the best interests of the child being the paramount consideration for the Judge in determining what order to make.

Orders for the welfare of children

Section 67ZC of the Act also confers power on the Court to make orders for the welfare of children. The power to make welfare orders is also subject to the Court having regard to the best interests of the child as paramount in making such an order.

In the medical context, the section was examined in Secretary, Department of Human Services v JWB and SMB (1992) 175 CLR 218 (Marion’s Case). The medical issue was whether the parents ought to be permitted to sterilise their intellectually disabled, 14-year-old daughter. The parent’s concerns related to her capacity to cope with issues surrounding menstruation and potential pregnancy.

The primary issue for the Court was whether the parents had authority to make this decision or whether Court authorisation was required. The court determined that some medical procedures required more than authority from the parents, and that Court approval would be necessary.

The decision to vaccinate is not one that falls within the category or non-therapeutic medical decisions requiring court approval and thus it is for the parents to reach agreement with respect to vaccination if they wish to avoid Court intervention.

Family law vaccination cases

There are numerous cases with respect to traditional vaccines that have been determined under the Act. These cases have been determined in accordance with best interest principles on the on the basis of expert evidence with respect to the particular vaccine as would be typically expected.

Some examples of these cases are:

  • Mains & Redden [2011] FamCAFC 184 the trial judge ordered immunization for measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, and a host of other diseases determining it was in the child’s best interests. The mother appealed and sought to adduce new evidence that the child would suffer adverse reaction because she had suffered adverse reactions to immunization as a child. The mother asserted she was not anti vaccine. On appeal, the Court found it was open to the judge on the expert evidence before him to make the decision that he did and that the reaction risk was remote on the evidence.
  • Howell & Howell [2012] FamCA 903 In this case the husband’s religion required strict vegetarianism including anti vaccination because the process contained animal products. The parents had agreed the child would not be vaccinated and, lodged the necessary conscientious objection forms. The Court ordered the wife would be responsible for medical decisions including vaccination because it was in the best interests of the child.
  • Kingsford & Kingsford [2012] FamCA 889 in this case the father took the child for vaccinations without the mother’s knowledge or consent. The mother sought orders stop further vaccination without her express permission (she wanted homeopathic immunization procedures instead of traditional medicine). Expert evidence before the Court showed the benefits of vaccination outweighed the risks. The judge was critical of the father vaccinating the children in secret and without consent but made detailed orders for vaccination.
  • Gerber & Beck [2020]FamCA 210 In this case the father raised a concern that the maternal grandmother was a anti vaccination activist who believed vaccinations were a ploy of the pharmaceutical industry. The mother said she would have the children vaccinated but she admitted she has previously made false vaccination certificates and she admitted her mother had sourced the doctor who assisted in falsifying the certificates. This evidence supported denying the mother permission to relocate the children’s residence to an overseas country.
  • Pieper & Jesberg & Ors [2020] FamCA 989 here the court found the father’s beliefs were “highly conspiratorial” and “whacky”. The beliefs included the earth is flat, the government conceals that we live on a flat earth, the 9/11 attacks were plotted by the US government to create Islamic terrorist concerns and that the moon landing was fake. At the final hearing, the father denied being opposed to all vaccinations and said that his comments related only to the vaccine for the COVID-19 virus.

Covid 19 vaccinations are new and thus at the moment there are only a handful of cases that have been determined, but this may soon change as more cases make it through the Court system in the Covid 19 list (discussed below).

One of the recent cases is Covington and Covington [2021] FamCAFC 52. In this case the mother initially consented to orders for a child aged 11 years to be vaccinated. Subsequently the mother appealed and withdrew her consent.

One of the orders she sought on appeal was a stay of the appeal pending the High Court determining an Application she brought pursuant to section 51xxiiiA of the Commonwealth Constitution. This constitutional provision provides the Commonwealth has power to make laws with respect to:

          “…the provision of maternity allowances, widow’s pensions, child endowment, unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness and hospital benefits, medical and dental service (but not so as to authorise any form of civil conscription), benefits to students and family allowances.”

The mother’s argument was that this provision conferred constitutional freedom from compulsory vaccination. The Court opined there was no authority for this interpretation and that it had little prospects for success. The Court referred to the decision of General Practitioners Society v The Commonwealth [1980] HCA 30 where it was held the phrase “civil conscription” applied to medical and dental services and “refers to any sort of compulsion to engage in practice as a doctor or a dentist or to perform medical or dental services.” The term seems to relate to compulsory service similarly to the military context of the word “conscription”.

In any event the mother’s application for special leave to the High Court failed.

The Covid 19 List

The Covid 19 List has been set up to deal urgently with disputes that have arisen as a result of the pandemic.

To be eligible to file the following criteria must be satisfied:

  1. The application must be as a direct result of or has a significant connection to the pandemic.
  2. The matter is urgent or of a priority nature.
  3. Accompanied by an Affidavit following a particular template.
  4. Subject to safety issue, attempts have been made to resolve the matter.
  5. The matter is suitable to be dealt wit via telephone or video link.

The types of matters this may cover include border difficulties, Covid related family violence, financial hardship from Covid for maintenance applications etc and vaccination. There are a list of rules that apply to the form of affidavit in support and it’s length, specific evidence that must be submitted relating to the urgency etc.

Where the Covid list applies the first Court date will likely be within 3 business days of filing if urgent and within 7 days if priority.

If your matter is going to court and you need assistance, contact Hooper Family Lawyers at Victoria Point on (07) 3207 7663.

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