Court rules in favour of father who wants his 16-year-old child vaccinated but whose ex-wife opposes
SINGAPORE: A court has ruled in favour of a man who wants his 16-year-old daughter to be vaccinated, but who faces opposition from his unvaccinated ex-wife.
However, the father of the teenager was ordered to pay his ex-wife court costs of S$2,000 as he allowed their daughter to get her first COVID-19 jab while court proceedings were ongoing.
In a judgment obtained by CNA on Tuesday (Apr 26), District Judge Kenneth Yap gave full weight to the child's preference to be vaccinated, saying that she came to her decision in "an informed and reasoned manner".
He added that the implication of the vaccination-differentiated safe management measures on unvaccinated individuals is "extremely significant".
The father, 49, is a British citizen and Singapore permanent resident, while the mother of the child is a 53-year-old Singaporean. They were married in 2003 and had their daughter in 2005. The man successfully filed for divorce in 2015, and has since remarried.
THE FATHER'S CASE
Their daughter is now 16 and studying in Singapore, and her parents have joint custody of her. According to her father, there was no issue in her care arrangements until the issue of whether the teen should receive the COVID-19 vaccines.
The girl's father filed an application to the Family Justice Courts in October, seeking an order for his child to receive the COVID-19 vaccine upon her consent.
The father's position was that it was in his daughter's best interest to receive the vaccine, especially in view of the Government's policy of living with the virus and the hike in number of COVID-19 cases in Singapore at the time.
The man, who was represented by lawyer Chung Ting Fai, exhibited various news articles and advisories from government agencies that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe for use in adolescents.
He said that his daughter herself wished to be vaccinated, attaching a handwritten note from her where she said she wanted the jab for two reasons: To prevent herself from falling seriously sick if she contracts the virus, and to socialise with her friends and travel overseas such as to visit her grandparents.
The girl was also found to be medically fit to proceed with the vaccine, with no previous allergic reactions to vaccines or drugs nor medical conditions that would prevent her from taking it.
THE MOTHER'S CASE
The mother argued that joint parental consent is required for their daughter to receive the jab, as she is under 21, and there was no basis for her ex-husband to allow the child to make her own decision in this.
She cited the possible adverse effects of the vaccine, exhibiting articles and videos reporting on the side effects of COVID-19 jabs, including for adolescents.
She argued that there was no need for her daughter to be vaccinated as the risk of vaccine injury or death is higher than the risk of her falling sick if she contracted the virus.
The mother herself was unvaccinated, adopting a wait-and-see position for a better solution or treatment to surface in the near future, court documents stated.
She found that her daughter "does not have sufficient maturity or deep understanding of the issues in relation to the possible side effects of the vaccination", and asserted that the teen was "under pressure to be vaccinated" so that she could travel to the United Kingdom with her father and his wife and new baby for Christmas.
She said there was no reason to place her daughter at risk of vaccine side effects especially when her "sole motivation to be vaccinated is to socialise and travel for leisure".
The woman, who was represented by Ms Alina Sim from Axis Law, attached a medical report where a doctor said the teen had a high level of innate immunity and that the weighing of risks and benefits did not justify her taking the vaccine.
THE FIRST DOSE WAS TAKEN WITHOUT MOTHER'S CONSENT
Even though court proceedings were ongoing, the girl received her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Nov 5, without her mother's knowledge or consent.
Her father had accompanied her and given his consent for her to take the jab, and his daughter later fell sick with a headache, sore throat and fever. She consulted a doctor and tested negative for COVID-19, returning to school three days after developing symptoms.
An order was made at a subsequent case conference to restrain both parents from allowing the child to proceed with the second dose or booster shot pending the court outcome.
A lawyer appointed by the court to act as the child's representative found that the girl had a good relationship with both her parents but did not agree with her mother's stand on vaccination.
She would remain silent if her mother spoke to her about it, and accepted that her mother was coming from a position of love and concern for her health and wellbeing.
She said everyone in her class had been vaccinated, with no one suffering adverse effects, and that her lack of vaccination had impacted her social life. She also wished to visit her family in the UK and needed to get vaccinated as travel restrictions had been lifted for vaccinated people.
She believed that her illness post-vaccination was unrelated to the jab as it occurred 10 days later, and feared that her liberties might be further restricted over time.
THE JUDGE'S DECISION
In a judgment dated Dec 3, Judge Yap said the question of whether COVID-19 vaccinations are justified for any particular individual is "as difficult as it is divisive".
"It is a decision made without the fullness of information and time, simply because there is no luxury as to either in the midst of the most severe health crisis faced by mankind over the last century," he said.
He said that there are "truths as well as misperceptions on both sides of the debate". Those against vaccination, such as the child's mother, point to the unknowns "inherent in rushing a vaccine through development and delivery, without the usual testing and observation that guarantee safety for human consumption".
Those in favour of vaccination point to statistics showing that adverse effects of the vaccine are statistically limited, while the benefit in terms of lowered risk of infection and reduced adversity of outcome is clearly demonstrated even among young adults and teenagers, said Judge Yap.
"This debate has divided society and family alike because the choice is an extremely personal one, given that it may quite literally make a difference between life and death for the individual," he said.
"As the choice is ultimately a personal one, to my mind, the courts should be chary to override the views of a sufficiently mature child, unless such a decision is demonstrably made in error and/or carries a substantial risk of death or serious injury to the child," said Judge Yap.
In this case, the 16-year-old child has been assessed by the court-appointed child representative to be "intelligent and well-informed", clearly cognisant of the risks and benefits of vaccination, said the judge.
He said one must consider the developmental impact on children growing up under the shadow of the pandemic, with a reduction in social activity and frustrations that arise from being cooped up at home.
"It should also be borne in mind that the impact of restrictions may be greater for children, who feel denied of novel experiences that adults otherwise dismiss as commonplace," said Judge Yap.
"For instance, the longing of a teenager to join friends in outings to malls, cinemas and restaurants is not a frivolity to be dismissed. It is a legitimate yearning which has been given full expression by the child in this case."
He added that the implication of vaccine-differentiated measures is "extremely significant", with the desire to remove such restrictions uppermost in the child's mind.
"The mother believes these to be immature and frivolous considerations, taken up in the flush of youth, in ignorance of the unknown long-term impact of vaccination," said Judge Yap.
"Respectfully, I did not agree. Given the extent of the differentiated restrictions cited above, their combined impact on the social and developmental needs of a child should not be understated or ignored. To my mind, the child has appreciated the risks and weighed them against the importance of her personal liberty."
He said it was the court's sincere hope that both parents would resume their spirit of cooperation after this court decision was made. The mother does not intend to appeal.
The child's father accepted that he acted in breach of the joint custody order by allowing his daughter to take her first jab while court proceedings were ongoing. Because of this, the judge awarded costs of S$2,000 to the girl's mother.