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.

Named reporting of HIV: A positive step for public health?

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Image from Flickr.com

In Australia, doctors must notify public health authorities of new cases of HIV/AIDs. However, strict confidentiality requirements apply to the testing, treating and notification of HIV, protecting the identity of patients.

As part of its review of the New South Wales Public Health Act 2010, the Department of Health is considering whether to remove these confidentiality requirements from NSW public health legislation. Is this a move that should be welcomed by health care professionals and patients?

Infectious disease notification

All Australian jurisdictions have laws that require the notification of certain infectious diseases. In NSW, notification requirements can be found in the Public Health Act 2010, which creates five categories of diseases that must be reported by medical practitioners, pathology laboratories, and hospitals, including HIV/AIDs.

Section 56 of the Act places confidentiality requirements on information relating to a patient’s HIV status. There are three main components to section 56:

  • Notifications for HIV/AIDs must be made in a de-identified format;
  • A person’s identifying details must not be used when arranging a diagnostic test for HIV (except in hospital situations or with the person’s consent);
  • A person who, in the course of providing a service, obtains information that an individual has been tested for HIV or has HIV/AIDs, must take reasonable steps to prevent that information from being disclosed. However, the information may be disclosed to a person involved in the provision of care of the patient, so long as it is relevant to the provision of such care.

Section 56 allows for disclosure of identifying information in certain other circumstances, including if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that failure to disclose the information would likely be a risk to public health. This allows for the Secretary of the Department of Health to identify and manage HIV positive individuals who pose a risk to the health of others, including (as a last resort) through public health orders that allow for the mandatory treating and detention of patients living with HIV.

Review of the Public Health Act 2010 (NSW)

NSW Health recently published a discussion paper on the review of the Public Health Act 2010 (NSW). The Ministry’s preliminary view is that HIV-specific confidentiality protections should be wound back. The paper notes several difficulties that stem from the confidentiality requirements for HIV notification:

  • De-identified notification increases the likelihood of duplicate testing and errors in notification, and impacts negatively upon the collection of epidemiological data, surveillance, and monitoring, and follow-up care of HIV positive patients;
  • Confidentiality requirements create a barrier to testing for HIV in combination with testing for other conditions as there are different consent procedures for HIV tests and other tests; and
  • They prevent healthcare professionals from being informed of patients’ HIV status where they are not providing treatment directly related to the patient’s HIV condition, but it would assist in providing care to know about the patient’s status (given that HIV and ART treatment have a range of health implications).

The policy of de-identifying HIV/AIDs notifications was first developed in the 1980s, at a time when most HIV infections occurred in gay men and there was considerable stigma and discrimination against the gay community and those living with HIV/AIDs. At that time, no effective treatment options were available for HIV/AIDs, making it a terminal condition. Many activists, clinicians, and community organizations were strongly against notification, and confidential notification provisions were adopted to encourage at-risk individuals to access HIV testing and care without fear of recrimination or discrimination.

The situation has changed significantly since then. Anti-retroviral therapy (ART) has made HIV a manageable, chronic condition, and has demonstrable benefits in preventing onwards transmission. Community attitudes towards the gay community and people living with HIV have changed considerably over the past 30 years, assisted by the introduction of laws that address discrimination and privacy concerns.

The discussion paper lists a number of benefits that would flow from rolling back HIV-specific confidentiality requirements:

  • Named notification would enable more accurate epidemiological data on HIV to be collected, for example, by allowing for better linking of HIV notifications with notifications of other conditions, which would assist with tracking and managing HIV co-infections; and
  • It would potentially allow better service provision and care of people living with HIV: one outcome would be that it would enable public health officers to follow up with HIV positive patients directly; liaise with clinicians; and refer people living with HIV to the relevant health services.

However, there is significant disagreement between NSW Health and HIV activists over whether named reporting would improve epidemiological data and access to care. Advocates argue that while named reporting may provide some benefit, this would be outweighed by its impact on privacy, testing, surveillance, and treatment.

HIV remains heavily stigmatized, and many people living with HIV continue to experience discrimination. These concerns are particularly relevant given that NSW criminalizes individuals with HIV (and other STIs) who fail to disclose their condition to their sexual partners.

Named reporting may deter people from being tested for HIV, particularly people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, recent migrants, highly sexually active men with multiple STIs, sex workers, and non-gay identifying men who have sex with men. People diagnosed with HIV may also be less willing to report sensitive personal information (e.g., injecting drug use), particularly if it could be used for law enforcement purposes. This would undermine the effective care of people living with HIV, as well as the quality of population-level data.

Advocates recognize that making information about a person’s HIV status, co-morbidities, and treatment regimen more widely available in clinical settings could improve care outcomes. However, they say that there are not enough examples of non-disclosure causing adverse effects to warrant the proposed changed, and the amendment would undermine the right of people living with HIV to disclose their HIV status to medical and healthcare workers at a time of their choosing.

Winding back “HIV exceptionalism”?

Writing on the legal environment of sexual health care practice, Roger Magnusson describes HIV as an “exceptional STI,” with unique legislation regulating counselling, diagnosis, and reporting of HIV. The central concerns of this legislation are the provision of supportive treatment and maintaining patient confidentiality.

Professor Magnusson describes how some countries are now winding back HIV exceptionalism, for example, in the US, CDC guidelines now recommend opt-out screening for all patients, i.e., patients are notified that screening will take place unless they decline consent. Some states, such as California, have adopted these recommendations, and while anonymous testing is still offered in many states, named HIV reporting is now the norm.

Notification of HIV/AIDs is a contentious subject, engaging issues around rights to privacy and autonomy, as well as on the role notification plays in data collection, testing, and treating. Many jurisdictions are streamlining the legal treatment of HIV testing with that of other infectious diseases; the question is whether NSW will – or should – do the same.

Central Queensland Hospital v Q: Access to abortion in Queensland and children’s ability to consent to medical treatment

 

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Image: Indybay.org

The decision in Central Queensland Hospital and Health Service v Q raises interesting issues in relation to the criminalization of abortion in Queensland and children’s ability to consent to medical treatment.

Q was a pregnant 12 year old girl who was referred to medical staff at the Central Queensland Hospital after asking her GP for an abortion. Q was finding the pregnancy “very stressful emotionally” and had run away from home, self-harmed, and attempted suicide on two occasions.

The medical specialists and counselors that had met with Q supported her decision to terminate the pregnancy, as did Q’s parents. There was evidence that continuing the pregnancy would pose significant risks to Q’s physical and mental health.

Central Queensland Hospital sought orders from the Court authorizing the termination of Q’s pregnancy. These were granted by Justice McMeekin in the Queensland Supreme Court on the 20th of April, followed by the judge’s reasons a week later.

The parens patriae jurisdiction

The Supreme Court’s parens patriae jurisdiction formed the basis for the Court’s intervention. This jurisdiction grants Supreme Courts wide powers in relation to the welfare of children, with the best interests of the child being the Court’s primary consideration.

Could Q consent to the treatment?

As I discuss in an earlier post, a child can consent to medical procedures when he or she “achieves a sufficient understanding and intelligence to enable him or her to understand fully what is proposed,” i.e., is Gillick competent (following Gillick v West Norfolk & Wisbech Area Health Authority [1986] AC 112).

Generally speaking, parents can consent to treatment on children’s behalf when they are not Gillick competent. However, there are some forms of treatment that fall outside the scope of parental consent, known as “special medical treatment.”

Justice McMeekin held that terminations are one such form of treatment (following State of Queensland v B [2008] QSC 231). Accordingly, court authorization for the treatment would be needed if Q herself was not competent to consent to the treatment.

Justice McMeekin found that Q had a good understanding of the risks involved in the procedure, but doubted that she had the maturity to fully appreciate the long-term consequences of a decision to continue with the pregnancy. Accordingly, she was unable to make a fully informed decision and was not competent to consent to the termination. As such, it was appropriate to invoke the Court’s parens patriae jurisdiction.

Could the treatment be performed lawfully?

Queensland’s Criminal Code criminalizes the termination a pregnancy, unless authorized or justified by law. Section 282 of the Code provides that a person is not criminally responsible for performing a termination so long as it is for the patient’s benefit or to preserve the mother’s life, and is reasonable in the circumstances.

Section 286 of the Code also provides that a “person who has care of a child” must provide the necessaries of life for the child, and take reasonable precautions to prevent danger to a child’s health, including their mental health. The definition of “a person who has care of a child” can include hospitals and doctors who care for children.

In determining whether the termination was lawful, Justice McMeekin followed the approach of the Victorian Supreme Court in R v Davidson [1969] VR 667, which held that an abortion would be lawful where it was believed on reasonable grounds that the abortion was necessary to prevent serious danger to the patient’s life or health, and it was not out of proportion to the danger to be averted.

Justice McMeekin held that it was clearly in Q’s best interests for termination of the pregnancy to proceed, as it was necessary in order to prevent serious danger to Q’s mental and physical health. Further, the proposed response was not out of proportion to the danger to Q’s health. Accordingly, the termination would not be considered unlawful, and it could be justified under sections 282 and 286 of the Code.

Justice McMeekin declared that: the termination of the pregnancy through the administration of drugs was lawful; Q should be permitted to undergo the termination; and the hospital’s staff be permitted to perform it. If the drugs failed to effect a termination within five days, Q’s pregnancy could be terminated using a surgical procedure.

What are the implications of the decision for access to abortion services in Queensland?

The criminalization of abortion in Queensland creates a barrier to women’s access to reproductive services. Q was forced to wait weeks for court authorization for her termination. In 2010 a young Cairns couple faced criminal charges for importing the abortion drug Misoprostol and inducing a miscarriage at home. They were ultimately found not guilty, but following that case, many doctors in Queensland stopped performing abortions.

Lucy Clark in The Guardian suggests that similar fears and uncertainties may be behind Q’s doctors’ decision to seek court authorization for her treatment. She may be right in that respect, but it must be kept in mind that the Queensland Supreme Court characterizes abortion as a form of “special medical treatment” that parents cannot consent to. Accordingly, court authorization would still be needed to perform a termination on a child that was not Gillick competent, regardless of abortion’s status under criminal law.

Kerridge, Lowe and Stewart criticize the characterization of abortion as a form of special medical treatment, arguing that it should fall within the scope of parental consent for children’s medical treatment. A change in the common law would be required in order for a termination to be performed on a non-Gillick competent child without court authorization (although the courts could still intervene under their parens patriae jurisdiction).

Nevertheless, the decriminalization of abortion in Queensland is still an important step in enhancing respect for women’s reproductive rights, and in ensuring access to abortion services.

NBOT Annual Workshop – Call for Papers

Date: 10 March 2016

Venue: Sydney Law School, University of Sydney

In March, the Network for Bodies, Organs and Tissues (NBOT) will host its annual multi-disciplinary workshop on bodies and tissues. The event provides a forum for discussions of moral, ethical and regulatory issues relating to the access and control of tissue. The Network welcomes papers that examine the challenges posed by the different uses of tissues (e.g. reproductive, therapeutic, regenerative, research, education, etc.), and debates about how to manage and resolve body-based conflicts. It encourages contributions from a diverse range of disciplines, and which explore the broader implications of changes in the way we regard the human body, organs and tissues.

We are currently calling for expressions of interest from Network members and their colleagues.

Please send abstracts (200 words) to cameron.stewart@sydney.edu.au by Friday 19 February 2016.We encourage you to pass this invitation onto students and other interested colleagues who wish to speak about their research in an encouraging and supportive environment.

Attendance at the workshop will be free but registration is essential.  Register here