07 February 2006

From Gillick to Axon - a wake-up call for drugs workers:


In January, the verdict was delivered in the case of Sue Axon, who challenged the legality of Government guidance on contraception advice to under 16s and a parent's "right to know." The case was not widely reported in the drugs field, which was strange as if the case had been found in favour of Ms Axon, it would have had profound implications for drugs work with under 16s, including advice work and needle exchange.

Axon challenged guidance that allowed for contraception to be provided to under 16's without parental consent provided that the child was considered "Gillick competent." This framework for working with under 16s has been an integral aspect of work with under 16s including drugs work, and has been enshrined in a number of strategy documents including the HAS report on work with young people, various Drugscope documents and resources from the NTA.

In the event, the court did not find in Ms Axon's favour, and so did not overturn the framework established in Gillick. Mr Justice Silber said: "Everybody involved in this case is agreed that a young person should be encouraged to involve his or her parents on any decision on sexual matters."

However, he added that there were unfortunate situations in which a young person needed advice when they were not prepared to inform their parents."

While the case upholds the concepts that emerged from Gillick, it does bring in to sharp focus the importance of careful assessment of a young person within the Framework. On the back of regular training sessions with a large number of wokers, it is clear that a number of workers in various agencies are unclear about their obligations to assess against Gillick.

All agencies working with under-16s must ensure that they have good assessment protocols to establish competence and effective procedures in place to assess when and how parents should be involved. The Axon case has reinforced the importance of dilligent assessment; workers must be able to demonstrate that they have made effort to encourage or facillitate disclosure to parents or carers, and they must be able to demonstrate how competence has been established. Failure to do could see future challenges to this important precedent eroded or worse, overturned.

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