Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority [1986] AC 112



Mrs Gillick was a mother of five children, one of whom had sought and received contraceptive advice from a local doctor whilst below the age at which she could lawfully consent to intercourse. This advice was provided pursuant to guidance issued by the Department of Health and Social Security. Mrs Gillick sought a declaration from the court that the Department’s guidance was unlawful as, amongst other things, it adversely interfered with parental rights and duties.


Gillick was a landmark decision which raised a number of complex legal issues. The House of Lords were called upon to resolve, first and foremost, the extent of the parental right to control a minor child and when, and indeed whether, such a minor could receive contraceptive advice, or consent to medical treatment, against the wishes or knowledge of their parents. Finally, it fell to be determined whether a doctor, in exercising his or her clinical duty, would be guilty of a criminal offence by providing contraception or advice to underage patients.


The application for a declaration was dismissed. Parental rights, as such, did not exist, except insofar as necessary to safeguard the best interests of a minor. In some circumstances a minor would be able to give consent in their own right, without the knowledge or approval of their parents. The test proposed by Lord Scarman posits that a minor will be able to consent to treatment if they demonstrate “sufficient understanding and intelligence to understand fully what is proposed” ([1986] AC 112, 187[D]). The test is now often referred to as ‘Gillick competence’ and is an integral aspect of medical and family law.