Understanding mental capacity
Understanding mental capacity

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1.3 Competence to give consent 

Children may be in a position to make some decisions relatively independently, but there may be a question about whether they have the mental capacity to make others. For example, children under 16 are not necessarily considered legally competent to give consent to (or refuse) medical treatment. However, the person administering the treatment must assess whether the child has sufficient maturity to understand what is being proposed, even if they are under 16. If it is considered that they do and that the treatment is in the child’s best interests, it may go ahead even if a person with parental responsibility does not agree. This is known as Gillick competency.

Victoria Gillick had four daughters. In January 1981 she wrote to her local health authority, West Norfolk and Wisbeach, asking them to confirm that her daughters would not be given any contraceptive advice under the age of 16 without her prior knowledge and consent. The health authority replied that it would be unusual to give this advice without involving a child's parents, but that ultimately the decision would rest with the medical practitioners involved and depend on their clinical judgement. There then commenced a protracted legal challenge initiated by Victoria Gillick. In 1984, her challenge was not accepted in the High Court, but later the Court of Appeal found in her favour. However, in 1985 the House of Lords reversed the Court of Appeal judgement (Scarman, 1985). In sum, it is now legal to decide whether a child is able to give consent to medical treatment on the basis of an assessment of the child's maturity and understanding of what is being proposed. This is known as an assessment of ‘Gillick competency’.

Young people aged 16–17 years are deemed to be legally competent unless formally assessed otherwise. However, they cannot refuse treatment that is considered to be in their best interests by either a person with parental responsibility or the courts. They are therefore not in the same position as adults aged 18 and over who can refuse treatment if competent to do so. 

Activity 2 Gillick competency

Timing: Allow about 25 minutes
  1. Read the NSPCC page about Gillick competency [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Note some of the principal aspects of the Gillick judgement.
  2. Then watch the video below from 1985 about the Gillick case. In the text box, note the key points about children’s decision making and the clinical judgement of doctors prescribing contraceptives to children under 16 without their parents’ consent.
Download this video clip.Video player: Gillick video
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Show transcript|Hide transcript
Gillick video
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Even at the highest level of the law in the UK, the Law Lords, there were considerable differences of opinion on the ability of young people to make decisions for themselves. However, the view proposed by the Gillick judgement prevailed. It remains the case today that if a child is competent to make an informed decision, then in certain circumstances contraceptive advice may be provided without the knowledge or consent of their parents. This decision will be made on the basis of the perception and judgement of the professional involved about what is in the child's best interests and whether they are capable of making up their own minds. On balance, it was deemed unrealistic to impose fixed age limits on matters that can vary enormously depending upon the maturity of the child and their circumstances. 

In the next section you look at the kinds of decisions made by children and young people that may require some consideration of mental capacity.

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371