The issue of consent was tested in court in England in a landmark case relating to the lawfulness of doctors giving contraceptive advice to those under 16 without parental knowledge or consent (Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority  AC 112). Gillick established the position that a parent’s ability to make decisions for their children is not absolute but reduces with the evolving maturity of the child to the point where they may be judged capable of making their own decisions even regarding serious (even life-threatening) matters.
The Age of Legal Capacity (Scotland) Act 1991 defines that people aged 16 and over have a capacity to make decisions about medical procedures on their own behalf. If under the age of 16 years, the question of whether the child is ‘capable of understanding the nature and possible consequences of the procedure or treatment’ (s.2(4)) will be determined by a qualified medical practitioner. The taking into account of the age and maturity of the child does not just apply in relation to ‘medical’ decisions but applies much more broadly, such as to the hearing of children’s views in legal proceedings.
This principle of age and understanding is very relevant to social work in terms of giving weight to children’s views, and assessing and making decisions about their capacity to understand. It is relevant, too, where there are issues of confidentiality.