What you should know
Under the law in BC, a child under age 19 may consent to their own health care — if they are capable.
The law considers a child capable if they understand the need for the health care, what the care involves, and the consequences (the benefits and risks) of getting the care — or not getting the care.
If a health care provider explains these things to the child and is satisfied the child understands them, and that the health care is in the child’s best interests, they can treat the child if the child consents to the care. The provider does not need the consent of the child’s parents or guardians. The child might have to sign a consent form.
Generally, if a child is capable of consenting to health care, they are also capable of making a decision to refuse health care.
Determining whether a child is capable
There is no set age when a child becomes capable. Doctors have to use their best judgment in each case to decide if a child is capable. Courts are flexible in deciding if a child is capable. It depends on how mature the child is and how serious the medical treatment is. A very young child may be able to consent to the dressing of a wound. On the other hand, an older child may not be capable of refusing life-saving treatment. For example, a court ordered a 14-year-old Jehovah’s Witness girl to have blood transfusions that she and her parents were refusing. Another example: a mildly developmentally disabled child may be capable of consenting to have a small cut treated, but not capable of consenting to antibiotics for an infection.
A child who is capable does not need their parent or guardian to consent to their health care. The child can consent to their own health care, without the consent or knowledge of their parents or guardians. A capable child can normally get medical treatment for things like birth control, abortion, mental health problems, sexually transmitted diseases, and alcohol and drug addiction problems.
If a parent or guardian is limiting a child’s access to health care, it could amount to abuse or neglect and the child may need protection. Anyone who knows of such a situation must report it to a child welfare worker. You can do so by calling the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s screening line at 1-800-663-9122.
Under BC law, for a child’s consent to health care to be legally valid, the health care provider must conclude the care is in the child’s best interests.
If there is disagreement about what care is in a child’s best interests, the child welfare authorities may become involved. If a child or their parent refuses health care that two doctors say is necessary to preserve the child’s life or health, the child welfare authorities can ask a court to overrule the refusal. This application is made under section 29 of the Child, Family and Community Service Act.
More information is available from the Ministry of Children and Family Development. See their website at gov.bc.ca/mcf or call toll-free 1-877-387-7027.
In a medical emergency, a health care provider may not need a person’s consent to provide health care. It depends on the situation. If a person’s life or health is seriously threatened, and it appears the person isn’t capable of making health care decisions, health care providers may be able to treat the person without consent. Because they are dealing with a medical emergency, they may be able to do whatever is necessary to try and save the person’s life or health.
See our information on adults and consent to health care for the law as it applies to adults in medical emergency situations.
A child's health care is confidential, if the child is capable. A doctor or health care provider can’t talk with the parents or guardians about a capable child’s health care, unless the child agrees. Just as doctors must keep information about their adult patients confidential, they must also keep information about their capable child patients confidential.
There are exceptions to this confidentiality rule. In some situations, a parent or guardian may be able to get their child’s medical information, or a doctor may have to disclose information to the Ministry of Children and Family Development. For example, if there is good reason to believe that a child might harm themselves or others, or there is suspected abuse (physical, sexual or emotional), then the information may not stay private. In that case, the child should be told why their information won’t be kept private and who it will be given to.
If a doctor considers a child not capable, they will tell the child’s parent or guardian if they treat the child.
For more on patient confidentiality, see our information on getting your medical records.
This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
Reviewed in June 2018
Time to read: 5 minutes
Reviewed for legal accuracy by
Katherine LeReverend, Ministry of Attorney General, Legal Services Branch