- You can consent to medical treatment if you are 16 or older, or if you are under 16 but understand what is going on
- If you can’t consent, someone with parental responsibility should make the decision about whether you should have the medical treatment or not
- Sometimes, doctors can treat you without consent
It’s very important that you or someone responsible for you gives permission before a doctor or nurse examines or treats you. This permission is called ‘consent’. Sometimes, you won’t be asked specifically if you agree to something happening. But if you don’t want an examination, or treatment, you can say so. Even if you are not old enough to consent yourself, the doctor and the person who will consent for you should listen to what you have to say.
Apart from emergencies and some other very specific reasons, a doctor who treats you without your consent, or the consent of someone with parental responsibility for you, could be breaking the law.
‘Consent’ is about giving someone permission to do something. If you go to see a doctor or got to hospital or somewhere else for some kind of medical examination, or treatment, you need to agree for it to happen. To be able to agree and give your permission, you have to be able to understand what the examination or treatment is, and what might happen. This is called ‘capacity’. You have to agree yourself, without pressure from anyone else on you to make a decision one way or the other. You also have to have been given all the information about the treatment or procedure, including any risks of the treatment, and what might happen if you don’t go ahead.
If you’re 16 or older, you can give consent for medical procedures – examinations and treatment. You can also decide not to go ahead with something. Just as with someone over 18, as long as you have all the information about the procedure or treatment and can understand the decision you are making, you can give your consent. This is called ‘having capacity’ to consent. No one can overrule your decision (including doctors or the people with parental responsibility for you) except in some specific circumstances when you are under 18 and/or there is significant information to suggest that you don't have the capacity to consent. This usually only happens in very serious cases where your decision to refuse treatment means you may die or suffer very serious consequences. The doctors may ask the people with parental responsibility for you to overrule your decision. If the people with parental responsibility won't do this the doctors may apply to the Court of Protection and ask the court to make the decision about whether treatment should go ahead or not.
If you’re under 16, you can also give consent if you can show that you understand fully what’s involved in your treatment. This will be decided on an individual basis and will also depend on the treatment or procedure involved.
If you are under 18 and have capacity to consent, but refuse to have treatment, your parents may be able to say that you should have the treatment, or the doctors can ask the Court of Protection to decide what should happen. This will usually only be in very serious situations, when refusing treatment means you might die or suffer serious consequences.
If you aren’t able to consent to medical treatment, because you’re not 16 and you do not have capacity, then someone with parental responsibility can give consent for the treatment on your behalf. That person has to be able to understand what is happening so that they can consent about treatment for you.
If an adult refuses to give consent and the doctors think that it would be in your best interests for you to have the treatment, the doctors can ask a court to decide what should happen. The same applies if the person with parental responsibility would like you to have a treatment and the doctors don’t agree that it would be in your best interests.
In some situations, doctors can treat you without consent from you, or from someone with parental responsibility for you. If there is an emergency situation, and you will die without urgent treatment, the doctors can treat you without your consent. This could be because you are unconscious, and your parents or carer can’t be contacted. You can also be treated if you have an illness that would be a risk to public health.
You might have a mental health condition which means you don’t have the capacity to consent to treatment of that condition.
If it’s not one of these exceptional situations, and a doctor or nurse treats you without your consent, or the consent of someone with parental responsibility for you, or without a court decision saying you should be treated, he or she could be breaking the law.
Sometimes, if someone has been in a bad accident or something has gone wrong for them and their health, they may end up being kept alive but unable to communicate what they want to happen. If this were to happen to you, the doctors would talk to your parents or the people with parental responsibility for you to discuss what would be the best thing to do. If the doctors and your parents agree, then they will be able to go ahead and do what is necessary to keep you alive. If there is a disagreement about what should happen, the courts will be asked to decide.
We are very grateful to Irwin Mitchell Solicitors for generously giving their time and expertise to check the content of this section of the website. October 2018.