Do you know of any cases where a child sued their parents over a rule or punishment?

Do you know of any cases where a minor child went to court to challenge a matter of their parents’ authority? I.E. of a child asking a court to stop their parents from enforcing a decision, rule or punishment concerning the child?

What I’m talking about is not as far-fetched as one might imagine. It evidently doesn’t happen day-to-day, and parents routinely get away with all manner of authoritarianism and enforcing very strict rules and very harsh punishments, but having their authority reviewed by a court is not unthinkable. At common law, courts have jurisdiction over decisions made by guardians for legally incompetent individuals under the doctrine of parens patriae (i.e., the court is the ultimate “parent” of the state). In theory, a child can take a parent to court over various matters as well. There is a catch, though: in general in common law jurisdictions, a minor (with jurisdiction- and situation-specific exceptions) doesn’t have standing to file a lawsuit alone, but must have an adult file the lawsuit in their name (this adult is variously called a “guardian ad litem”, a “next friend”, a “litigation guardian”, etc., depending on the jurisdiction). This, however, is not an insurmountable problem and the litigation guardian can be any competent adult, e.g. your older sibling, a neighbor, etc. In some jurisdictions, the court might even be willing to appoint one for you.

Here are the cases that I know about. I will start with Canada, where (in a very general sense), the law tends to see parental authority as existing for the purpose of ensuring the interests of the child rather than as a personal entitlement of the parent. Furthermore, the landmark 1985 British case Gillick v. West Norfolk and Wisbech area Health Authority, where the then-highest British court ruled that parental authority (in England and Wales and, I believe, Northern Ireland) is not absolute but diminishes as the child gets more mature, now also has weight in Canadian jurisprudence. I know of two court cases where a minor successfully had a court override a parent’s wishes regarding the minor’s person:

  • The 2008 Quebec case Droit de la famille - 081485. Article 159, Paragraph 2 of the Quebec Civil Code allows a minor, with the court’s permission, to file a lawsuit alone (i.e. without a guardian’s permission; in Quebec, which is not a common law jurisdiction, a minor is normally represented in court by their “tutor” or legal guardian) on a matter concerning the authority of their parents. In this case, a 12-year-old girl whose parents were separated was forbidden by her father from attending an end-of-year school trip to to the provincial capital. He claimed to have done so in part as a punishment and in part out of concern for the girl’s safety. Owing to family conflicts in the father’s blended family household, the girl had recently left and gone to live with her mother, who supported her going on the trip, but the school required the permission of both parents, so the girl (not her mother - the girl in her own right, with a lawyer’s help) filed the lawsuit. The court considered the facts and concluded that, while a lawsuit of this kind needs a good reason to be justified, that the father had already punished the girl once by forbidding her to participate in a school show, that the trip was perfectly safe and educational, and so ordered that the father’s consent be substituted to allow the girl to go on the trip. Though the girl went on the trip, the father appealed out of principle, and lost.

  • In the 2019 British Columbia case A.B. v. C.D. and E. F., a 14-year-old transgender boy diagnosed with gender dysphoria wanted to start transitioning hormone therapy. His father objected and got a court injunction against the treatment. With his mother’s support, the boy applied to the BC Supreme Court via a family court claim. (Analogously to Quebec, section 201 subsection (1) of the BC Family Law Act states that " A child has the capacity to make, conduct or defend a proceeding under this Act [i.e. in a family law matter] without a litigation guardian if the child is (a) 16 years of age or older, (b) a spouse, or (c) a parent and subsection (2) allows a court to allow “…a child who is not described in subsection (1) to make, conduct or defend a proceeding under this Act without a litigation guardian.”) The court found that the boy truly had gender dysphoria and that the medical treatment was in his interests. Therefore, it ordered that the boy can proceed with the treatment and further that any attempt to persuade him to abandon treatment for gender dysphoria, addressing him by his birth name, and referring to him as a girl or with female pronouns whether to him directly or to third parties was “family violence” under section 38 of the Family Law Act. In a subsequent appeal by the father, the court upheld the boy’s choice of treatment, though it quashed the part of the ruling declaring future behaviors family violence, arguing, basically, that such things could not be pre-set by the court.

In the United States, the law seems to traditionally be more favorable to the idea of parental rights as a personal right of the parent; although the principle of the best interests of the child has received some recognition, American law/courts seem to still be more favorable to the idea of parental authority as a parental entitlement than Canadian courts. I have found very little jurisprudence of the above kind in American cases; a few very old cases from early American history may be of relevance, but I don’t have the pertinent information on hand and the cases may not be relevant for the present state of the law, so I will mention the one case on which I have a reasonable amount of information. It is In the Matter of the Welfare of Lee Anne G., decided in Minnessota in 1972. I wish I had an actual transcript but all the information I have comes from secondary sources, so I will extensively paraphrase. It’s a very interesting case. Lee Anne was the oldest of several daughters, 14 according to one source, 16 according to another. Her family was about to fulfill a longtime dream of sailing out on a 40-foot-long boat and spending one to several years at sea, where the girls would be homeschooled. Lee Anne, not surprisingly given that she was in her teen years, objected (imagine being a teenager and having to spend your final years of growing up away from your peers and more or less only in the company of your immediate family). She wanted to stay behind and be near her circle of friends, in particular her boyfriend, whom her parents disapproved of. The parents insisted she go with them on the trip; Lee Anne went to court. She didn’t have a guardian ad litem, but the court appointed one. The judge duly considered the question of whether Lee Anne had standing to bring such a matter to court. He ruled that she did. He then considered whether a minor had the right to decide any such matters in place of their parents. He stated that as a general matter of law, they did not; that the parents had the right to decide about matters of their children’s upbringing, and that the court would follow the parents’ plan, unless it was found to be detrimental to the child. Going from this, the judge found that being forced to go on the boat trip would be distressing to Lee Anne and thus ruled that she didn’t have to go with her family; however, he ordered an alternative parent-approved option: that she stay behind with an aunt in another state. In this way, she would presumably have led something like a normal teen life stateside while her family was away, but would have been separated from her boyfriend. I wonder if there are any more recent American cases in any state that are more favorable to the notion that minors can make more of their own decisions as they get older (akin to the British Gillick case that I referenced above).

I know of one more case, this time from France. Again, I know about it from a secondary source, and it wasn’t reported in much detail, so I don’t know if the child herself was the actual plaintiff, but let’s say that she was. Apparently, it concerned a girl, I think somewhere in her teens, who had very strict religious parents. The court reportedly ruled that the girl did not have to obey her parents in matters of religion. However, I don’t have any further information.

Does anyone know of any similar court cases?

This isn’t my bailiwick exactly but my first thought is that you should look at law review articles about the emancipation of minors. I suspect they will cite to cases that discuss parents’ rights, best interests of the child, and resolving conflicts between kids’ reasonable wants and parents’ conflicting wants.

Children have standing in the Australian Family court.

Kendal v Khyatt (2010), Kendal objected to being directed to move overseas and get married at 17. Court found for Kendal.

(When the parents disagree, children are also often independently represented, by an Independent Children’s Lawyer, but that’s not because the child has commenced proceedings against their parents).

As far as I know, if the parents are married for the most part American courts will only step in regarding parental decisions that constitute abuse or neglect if the parents are married .So they might step in if both parents refused to consent to hormone therapy of that was found to constitute necessary medical care and they would possibly intervene in the case of the separated parents who disagreed about the school trip. However, in my experience, neither would be a lawsuit by the child against the parent in the US. The medical situation would essentially be a neglect/abuse proceeding although that could be precipitated by the child’s complaint rather than a report from a doctor. The school trip situation would be handled as a custody matter- and an American court certainly would not have gotten involved if both parents were opposed to the trip. I could not find any further information regarding the Lee Anne case - but I am fairly certain it had less to do with Lee Anne not wanting to go and much more to do with living on a boat for several years ( which might extend past her 18th birthday), homeschooling and the lack of access to medical care. I doubt very much the court would have told her she didn’t have to move to Iowa.

But would it be a matter of a court actively refusing to hear a child who had requested to be heard on such a matter (and on which the parents agree) or simply one of courts not second-guessing parental decisions of the courts’ own initiative? While courts themselves don’t actively seek instances of parental authority over which to make decisions, as far as I can tell, both the principle of the court’s inherent parens patriae jurisdiction over children and the possibility for a child to go to court if represented by an adult guardian ad litem apply in American courts as well. Do you know of specific cases where a child attempted to do this and the court either completely refused to hear the case or dismissed it on the explicit grounds that it considered itself not to have competency to overrule parental decisions?

You may well be right, but I feel that there is an important point in Lee Anne’s favor, even if she didn’t get exactly what she wanted: the court was willing to listen to the complaint of a child plaintiff against her parents and consider the facts. In one of the very few quotes that I have from the case, the judge justified this as follows: “Surely no American seeking protection of her real, or even her illusionary rights will be barred from at least posing.her plea to the courts.” The judge didn’t dismiss her plea outright. He did consider that final decisions on a minor’s upbringing belong to their parents, but admitted that the court can overrule such decisions as are detrimental to the child. So while Lee Anne had to move to her aunt’s state, as per her parents’ second choice, at least the judge found himself able to make a finding that going on the cruise would be “an emotional disaster” for the girl (to quote the article about the case in the Minneapolis Tribune of Feb. 4, 1973, which uses the pseudonym Susan for Lee Anne and which is the most detailed source I have found on the case).

While I am aware that parental rights are highly esteemed in American law, I can’t find any rule of law to the effect that an American court cannot overrule an ordinary parental decision per a child’s request. It seems to me to be more of a reluctance on the part of judges to do so. I made reference above to the English Gillick case, which established in law that parental authority is not absolute but diminishes with a child’s evolving maturity. Such was certainly not always the case in England. In 1883 there, the court arrived at an opposite principle in Re Agar-Ellis. In that case, a teenage girl who shared her mother’s Catholic persuasions was kept away from the latter by her Protestant father - the parents were separated. The girl asked the court to issue an order allowing her to at least see her mother during school vacations. The court refused to do so, postulating that the father’s rights were sacred (back then, married mothers didn’t have authority over their children apart from the father’s while the father was alive, and the father could even issue instructions for his child’s upbringing to be followed after his death, which the court could enforce), and that it was only the court’s place to intervene in cases of gross dereliction of a father’s duty. However, in the 1969 case Hewer v. Bryant, the judge directly stated; “I would get rid of the rule in Re Agar-Ellis…I decline to accept a view so much out of date. The common law can, and should, keep pace with the times. It should declare…that the legal right of a parent to the custody of a child ends at the eighteenth birthday and even up till then, it is a dwindling right which the courts will hesitate to enforce against the wishes of a child, the older he is. It starts with a right of control and ends with little more than advice.” The 1985 Gillick case confirmed this principle and added further criteria for establishing a minor child’s right to decide for themselves in a particular matter. I could be wrong, but I imagine it would be only a matter of an American court deciding to adopt a similar principle as precedent, and not of any blanket legal rule which strictly forbids Amercian courts from doing so. To go back to Lee Anne G.'s case, another source I have on it, the article “The Six Million Dollar Man: Litigation and Rights Consciousness in Modern America” (Maryland Law Review Vol. 39, Issue 4), has this to say about it: “This case is, obviously, very unusual. How many girls of fourteen have the nerve or the skill to do what this girl did? Yet, doctrinally, the case broke no new ground. For a long time courts have had power to act in the best interests of the child. Again, the startling difference is more one of attitude than doctrine. It is hard to imagine a court hearing this complaint, under any theory, in 1850 or 1900 or even 1950. But in 1972, the court was at least willing to listen, even though what the girl wanted was both novel and farfetched.” [My emphasis]

I don’t know of any specific cases where a child has attempted to file a lawsuit based an a child disagreeing with a parental decision - but in general* ( and in my state I’m certain of it ) courts do not and have no basis to intervene unless there is some allegation of unfitness on the part of the parents. Courts do not act simply in the best interests of the child- after all, it would be in the best interests of a poor child for them to be adopted by a wealthier family , but courts don’t strip custody from their parents on that basis alone even if there is a wealthier family waiting in the wings to adopt the child. That law review article simply doesn’t give enough information about how the Lee Anne case got to court and what the papers said to say that Lee Ann brought the lawsuit herself, without any involvement by a child protection agency, without the aunt or another relative filing for custody and without any allegations that the parents’ decision to live on a boat for some unspecified amount of time constituted some form of neglect or abuse.

It is possible for a child to become emancipated - but in my state, a child cannot go to court requesting emancipation. Instead, a motion for emancipation must be filed in conjunction with a case already before the court such as custody or child support.

  • I do know of one exception - in NJ a child of divorced parents can sue the parents for college tuition even if neither wants to pay it ( in most states, it would be one parent going to court to get the ex-spouse to pay their share as ordered in the decree) but it’s not at all clear that it would apply to still-married parents.