School counselling and “informed consent”
“Informed consent” is a term that has a lot of applications in different contexts. In essence, it just means that all relevant parties are aware of all the information that is needed to fully understand, and hence agree to, receiving a service. In terms of school counselling, this is usually a question of whether a child is sufficiently able to make any decisions for treatments with or without their parental or guardian consent.
What are the rules around informed consent?
When deciding whether school counsellors and psychologists will work with children, they must concurrently consider:
- Their own school’s guidelines and procedures;
- Existing common law standards like Gillick competence;
- Overarching legislative standards: such as duty of care and professional indemnity; and
- Best practice frameworks like the Australian Psychological Society’s ‘The framework for effective delivery of school psychology services: a practice guide for psychologists and school leaders’ (2018).
The APS Framework is one recent attempt to bridge the gap between different practices, but it is not necessarily binding as a law or case principle, and sometimes you might encounter advice from each area that clash with one another.
What situations does informed consent become contentious?
As family lawyers, issues around informed consent arise in the school environment in mainly one of two ways. Namely, when there is a conflict between:
- the psychologist and any of the involved parties; and/or
- two parents about their child accessing the counselling services.
What issues come up with informed consent?
From our perspective, disputes about ‘informed consent’ tend to be about:
- Knowing what information is required before making informed consent;
- Identifying the relevant parties needed to make informed consent and how age affects whether it is necessary; and
- Whether different forms of informed consent are acceptable or not.
So whether you’re a diligent professional, or a concerned parent or guardian, getting advice for your situation is extremely important.
At what age can my child access school counselling without my consent?
Regarding the age at which a child can decide what treatment they can receive without consent, there is a ballpark age of around 14-16 y.o., thanks to the Gillick case. However, this is less of a rule, and more of guide. The important question for school counsellors and psychologists is the “maturity and understanding” of the individual in front of them.