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Gillick competence is a term originating in England and is used in medical law to decide whether a child (16 years or younger) is able to consent to his or her own medical treatment, without the need for parental permission or knowledge.The standard is based on a decision of the House of Lords in the case Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority 1985 3 All ER 402 (HL). The case is binding in England, and has been approved in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Similar provision is made in Scotland by The Age of Legal Capacity (Scotland) Act 1991. In Northern Ireland, although separate legislation applies, the then Department of Health and Social Services Northern Ireland stated that there was no reason to suppose that the House of Lords' decision would not be followed by the Northern Ireland Courts.
The Gillick decision Gillick involved a health departmental circular advising doctors on the contraception of minors (for this purpose, under sixteens). The circular stated that the prescription of contraception was a matter for the doctor's discretion, and that they could be prescribed to under sixteens without parental consent. This matter was litigated because the activist Mrs Gillick ran an active campaign against the policy. Mrs Victoria Dorothy Elizabeth Mandeville Gillick (née Gudgeon), a mother of ten (including five girls), sought a declaration that prescribing contraception was illegal because the doctor would commit an offence of encouraging sex with a minor, and that it would be treatment without consent as consent vested in the parent.The issue before the House of Lords was only whether the minor involved could give consent. 'Consent' here was considered in the broad sense of consent to battery or assault: in the absence of patient consent to treatment a doctor, even if well-intentioned, might be sued/charged. The House of Lords focussed on the issue of consent rather than a notion of 'parental rights' or parental powers. In fact, the court held that 'parental rights' did not exist, other than to safeguard the best interests of a minor. The majority held that in some circumstances a minor could consent to treatment, and that in these circumstances a parent had no power to veto treatment. Lord Scarman and Lord Fraser proposed slightly different tests (Lord Bridge agreed with both). Lord Scarman's test is generally considered to be the test of 'Gillick competency'. He required that a child could consent if they fully understood the medical treatment that is proposed:"As a matter of Law the parental right to determine whether or not their minor child below the age of sixteen will have medical treatment terminates if and when the child achieves sufficient understanding and intelligence to understand fully what is proposed." Lord ScarmanSubsequent to Gillick, a similar standard (usually still called "the Gillick standard") has been adopted in Australian law (see Marion's Case) and Canadian law. The Gillick standard should be contrasted with the stricter age-limit approach used in the US.
Subsequent developments The decisions in Re R and Re W (especially Lord Donaldson) weaken the Gillick decision somewhat. From these, and subsequent cases, it is clear that although the parental right to veto treatment ends, parental powers do not ‘terminate’, as suggested by Lord Scarman in Gillick. Rather, Gillick competency grants the child an ability to consent but does not affect the power of the parent. That is, if a child is Gillick competent both she and her parent will be able to consent. As a result, a child can be legally treated in circumstances where they refuse/resist treatment. In addition, the parens patriae jurisdiction of the court remains available allowing a court order to force treatment against a child's (and parent’s) wishes.As a result of a further ruling in 1990, a child who is deemed "Gillick competent" is able to prevent their parents viewing their medical records. As such, medical staff will not make a disclosure of medical records of a child who is deemed "Gillick competent" unless consent is manifest.In most jurisdictions the parent of an "emancipated minor" does not have the ability to consent to therapy, regardless of the Gillick test. Typical positions of emancipation arise when the minor is married (R v D 1984 AC 778, 791) or in the military. The nature of the standard remains uncertain. The courts have so far declined invitations to define rigidly "Gillick competence" and the individual doctor is free to make a decision, consulting peers if this may be helpful, as to whether that child is "Gillick competent".
Australian law The Australian High Court gave specific and strong approval for the Gillick decision in 'Marion's Case' 175 CLR 189. The Gillick competence doctrine is part of Australian law (see e.g. DoCS vY 1999 NSWSC 644). There is no express authority in Australia on Re R and Re W, so whether a parent’s right terminates is unclear. This lack of authority reflects that the reported cases have all involved minors who have been found to be incompetent, and that Australian courts will make decisions in the parens patriae jurisdiction regardless of Gillick competence.In South Australia and New South Wales legislation clarifies the common law, establishing a Gillick-esque standard of competence but preserving concurrent consent between parent and child for the ages 14-16.
Confusion regarding Gillick competency Recently, confusion has arisen between Gillick competency, which identifies under-16s with the capacity to consent to their own treatment, and the Fraser guidelines, which are concerned only with contraception and focus on the desirability of parental involvement and the risks of unprotected sex in that area. A persistent rumour arose that Victoria Gillick disliked having her name associated with the assessment of children's capacity, although a recent editorial in the BMJ debunks this idea, quoting Victoria Gillick as saying that she "has never suggested to anyone, publicly or privately, that she disliked being associated with the term 'Gillick competent'".Wheeler R. Gillick or Fraser? A plea for consistency over competence in children BMJ 2006;332:807 (8 April). PMID 16601020
Fraser Guidelines It is lawful for doctors to provide contraceptive advice and treatment without parental consent providing certain criteria are met. These criteria, known as the Fraser Guidelines, were laid down by Lord Fraser in the House of Lords' case and require the professional to be satisfied that:
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