The courts’ role in treatment for childhood gender dysphoria: recent updates

Photo by Aedrian on Unsplash

In 2020 and 2021, there were significant developments in the courts’ role in treatment for childhood gender dysphoria.  The UK case of Bell v Tavistock is well known, but Re Imogen is of more practical importance here in Australia. Both cases illustrate the changing role of the courts in treatment for childhood gender dysphoria, following developments in our understanding of gender dysphoria and its treatment. They also engage key principles coming out of Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority, where, in a legal turning point, the House of Lords held that a minor can consent to their own treatment when they achieve “a sufficient understanding and intelligence to enable him or her to understand fully what is proposed.”

When a child is not “Gillick competent”, generally speaking, their parents can consent to treatment on their behalf. The Australian courts have created an exception, however, for forms of “special medical treatment” that must be authorised by the courts.

The Family Court has previously held that both “stage one” (puberty blockers) and “stage two” (cross-sex hormones) of (medical) treatment for childhood gender dysphoria were forms of special treatment that required court authorisation. But it has gradually relaxed this stance, deciding in 2013 (in Re Jamie) that stage one could be consented to parents, and in 2017 (in Re Kelvin) that court authorisation was no longer required for stage two. However, court authorisation was still required where there was a dispute or genuine controversy about whether the treatment should be administered.

Re Imogen concerned this last point coming out of Re Kelvin. Key to the case was that Imogen’s parents disagreed on whether she should receive treatment, with her mother disputing Imogen’s diagnosis of gender dysphoria, as well as her competency. Justice Watts in the Family Court held that if a parent or medical practitioner dispute (i) the competence of an adolescent; (ii) a diagnosis of gender dysphoria or (iii) the proposed treatment, an application to the Family Court is mandatory.

A controversial point is that Justice Watts held that even if the child was competent to consent to treatment themselves, if there is a dispute about diagnosis or treatment, the court must still decide the diagnosis and whether treatment is in the young person’s best interests.

Justice Watts also held that under existing Australian law, a medical practitioner treating a minor was unable to commence any stage of treatment without first obtaining the consent of both parents to treatment, and if there was any dispute, court authorisation was required. To the extent that guidelines on the Australian Standard for treatment stated that parental consent was not required in relation to a competent minor (although it was desirable), they were incorrect.

Academics Stephanie Jowett and Fiona Kelly criticise Re Imogen both for its practical implications for healthcare professionals and transgender young people and their families, and on the basis of legal principle.

Assuming an adult is competent, they are free to make whatever healthcare decision they choose (within the scope of healthcare options that are available to them – clinicians are not obliged to provide futile treatment), even if it is harmful to their health or could lead to their death. But Jowett and Kelly point out that the courts are reluctant to leave Gillick competent minors to make healthcare decisions for themselves, where that decision could have significant implications for their health.

Re Imogen illustrates this point in relation to treatment for childhood gender dysphoria: if a young person is Gillick competent, why does the court then have to decide on their diagnosis or treatment if there is a dispute between their parents on these issues? If the young person has achieved competency, why can’t they make the decision themselves?

There may be good reasons to accept some degree of court oversight and paternalism in relation to competent minors, but the circumstances in which court intervention is required (and whether alternative dispute resolution processes could be made available) should be considered carefully.  

Re Imogen requires healthcare professionals to seek consent from both parents prior to treatment, and Jowett and Kelly point out that this means an unsupportive parent could trigger court intervention by challenging the diagnosis, the proposed treatment, or both. This is the case even if a parent is absent from their child’s life or has a problematic relationship with the child. The judgment also places a significant administrative burden on healthcare professionals to obtain the consent of both parents prior to treatment, or (where consent cannot be obtained) to support transgender young people to obtain court authorization through lengthy and expensive court proceedings. This could result in significant (perhaps prohibitive) costs to families, as well as delays in treatment during a critical window for intervention.

The UK High Court’s 2020 decision in Bell v Tavistock represented an increase in court intervention in treatment for childhood gender dysphoria, but the decision has since been overturned by the UK Court of Appeal.

Two claimants sought a declaration that the UK Gender Identity Development Service had acted unlawfully in prescribing puberty blockers to children under the age of 18. The UK High Court did not find the practice unlawful but made a declaration that a child would have to understand the implications of both stage one and stage two treatment to achieve Gillick competence.

The Court also provided guidance that it was “highly unlikely” that a child aged under 13 could be competent to their own treatment, and “very doubtful” that children aged 14 or 15 could be competent. It may be appropriate for court authorisation to be sought for children aged 16-17, although a statutory presumption of competency takes effect at 16 in the UK. This guidance was understood by clinicians as requiring court authorisation for treatment of any child for gender dysphoria.

The Court made findings about the nature of treatment for childhood gender dysphoria that were fundamental to its guidance on whether minors could be competent to consent. The court characterised treatment as perhaps “unique” and “experimental” due to uncertainty over its short- and long-term impacts. It also has life-long and life changing consequences, going to the heart of individual identity.

The Court rejected the idea of stage 1 treatment as a neutral “pause” that gave children time to mature and consider their options (some Australian commentators have expressed a similar opinion), and that stage 1 and 2 of treatment were entirely separate. Instead, it conceptualised the two stages as one clinical pathway, and so to achieve competence, a child would need to understand not just the implications of taking puberty blockers, but also those of progressing to cross-sex hormones, including that: the majority of patients taking puberty blockers go on to take cross-sex hormones; cross-sex hormones may lead to a loss of fertility; and may negatively impact on sexual function. There would be obvious difficulties for younger children in understanding these kinds of ideas, and therefore no age-appropriate way of explaining them.

Following the judgment, the Court’s characterisation of treatment was disputed by professional bodies involved in treating transgender young people in the UK. Bell v Tavistock was not binding on Australian healthcare professionals, but it appears that some Australian service providers reconsidered their approach to obtaining consent to treatment for childhood gender dysphoria following this decision, in conjunction with Re Imogen. The idea of stage 1 and 2 of treatment as inexorably linked also appears contrary to the approach of the Australian Family Court, which has tended to treat the two stages as distinct since Re Jamie.

Bell v Tavistock was appealed in 2021, and the UK Court of Appeal held that (among other things) the factual findings made on the nature of treatment were not open to the High Court to make (based on the nature of the Court’s jurisdiction when undertaking judicial review), and that the declaration made by the Court was contrary to Gillick.

This was because the High Court’s declaration provided a list of factual circumstances that had to be evaluated in determining whether a child was competent to consent to medical treatment (related to whether the child could understand the implications of stage two treatment). This would essentially mean that healthcare professionals would be substituting the judgment of the court for their own clinical judgment when determining a child’s competency. Yet, said the Court of Appeal, the ratio of Gillick was “that it was for doctors and not judges to decide on the capacity of a person under 16 to consent to medical treatment.” [76]

The UK Court of Appeal also held that the High Court should not have issued guidance on the age at which children could consent to treatment, as it was not able to generalize about children’s competency to consent at different ages. Further, the guidance required court applications in circumstances where the High Court itself recognised there was no legal requirement to do so. The Court of Appeal recognised that this would have the effect of denying treatment for young people who lacked the resources to make such an application, and that the requirement for court authorisation where the child, parents, and clinicians all agreed on treatment would be inconsistent with previous UK authority.

The most recent decision in Bell v Tavistock will come as a relief for transgender young people, their families, and clinicians, as it removes the requirement for (expensive and time consuming) court intervention when all parties involved agree on treatment. Some role for the courts in disputes over the treatment of competent minors may be justified. However, continuing changes in the law on treatment for childhood gender dysphoria can only create stress and uncertainty for transgender young people, their families, and the clinicians treating them.

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