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Legal definition of a child

NSPCC factsheet

July 2013

Our factsheet looks at the legal definition of 'child' in the UK in various contexts, including child protection guidance, sexual offences, criminal responsibility and parental consent.

What law defines the age of a child in the UK?
What is the definition of a child in child protection guidance?
What is the age of consent?
What is the age of criminal responsibility?
At what age should children's wishes be taken into account?
At what age is parental consent no longer required?
At what age can a child be employed?

What law defines the age of a child in the UK?

There is no single law that defines the age of a child across the UK. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by the UK government in 1991, states that a child “means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier” (Article 1, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989).

In the UK, specific age limits are set out in relevant laws or government guidance. There are, however, differences between the UK nations.

What is the definition of a child in child protection guidance?

England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland each have their own guidance setting out the duties and responsibilities of organisations to keep children safe, but they agree that a child is anyone who has not yet reached their 18th birthday.

HM Government (2013) Working together to safeguard children: A guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF). London: Department for Education (DfE). (See footnote on p.7).

Welsh Assembly Government (2007) Safeguarding children: working together under the Children Act 2004 (PDF) Cardiff: Welsh Assembly Government.

Northern Ireland
Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (2003) Co-operating to safeguard children. Belfast: DHSSPS. (Paragraph 2.1).

Scottish Government (2010) National guidance for child protection in Scotland (PDF). [Edinburgh]: Scottish Government. (See p.11).

Vulnerable groups
Some especially vulnerable groups have their entitlement to services extended beyond 18. For instance the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 states that local authorities in England and Wales must keep in touch with care leavers until they are at least 21, and they should provide assistance with education, employment and training.

The Children (Leaving Care) Act (Northern Ireland) 2002 puts the same duty on the local authorities in Northern Ireland.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 states that the age of consent for sex is 16 years old in England and Wales. The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 brings the age of consent in Northern Ireland down from 17 to 16 years, to bring it into line with the rest of the UK.

It is not intended that the sexual offences legislation be used to prosecute mutually consenting sexual activity between under 16s, unless it involves abuse or exploitation. To protect younger children, the law says children aged under 13 years can never legally give consent, so any sexual activity with a child aged 12 years or under will be subject to the maximum penalties.

The legislation also gives extra protection to young people aged 16 to 17 years. It is illegal to take, show or distribute indecent photographs, pay for or arrange sexual services, or for a person in a position of trust (e.g. teachers, care workers) to engage in sexual activity with anyone under the age of 18 years.

The Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005 supplementing the Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995 and the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 provide the same protection for children in Scotland.

What is the age of criminal responsibility?

The age of criminal responsibility is the age at which, in the eyes of the law, a child is capable of committing a crime and therefore old enough to stand trial and be convicted of a criminal offence.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years and in Scotland it is 12 years.

A 2002 report from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child criticised this low age limit and recommended that the UK Government “considerably raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility” (see paragraphs 59-62).

The age limit in England and Wales was legislated by section 34 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and in Northern Ireland by section 3 of the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 1998.

In Scotland, the age limit for criminal prosecution was raised to from 8 to 12 years under section 52 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010. However the age of criminal responsibility remains 8 years old (which means a child under 8 years cannot be guilty of any offence) (CJD Circular JD/2011). Section 42 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995, however, states that “No child under the age of 16 years shall be prosecuted for any offence except on the instructions of the Lord Advocate”.

At what age should children's wishes be taken into account?

Most guidance relating to services for children (such as safeguarding and health care) stresses the importance of listening to the wishes of the child. However, the authorities have a duty to act in the best interests of the child, which may mean contradicting their wishes.

For instance, in England and Wales, section 53 of the Children Act 2004 amended section 17 and section 47 of the Children Act 1989 to give due consideration to the wishes and feelings of the child as far as reasonable, before determining what services to provide or action to take.

Section 3(3) of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 says:

“a court shall have regard in particular to the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of his age and understanding).”

Many activities have their own age limits and the age when a child may make their own decisions without the consent of parents, or those with parental responsibility, depends on the activity in question.

For more detailed information read “At what age can I?” from the Children’s Legal Centre: Rogalski, Holly (2010) At what age can I? A guide to age-based legislation. Wivenhoe Park, Essex: Children's Legal Centre.

Gillick competency or Fraser guidelines

When deciding whether a child is mature enough to make decisions, people often talk about whether a child is "Gillick competent" or whether they meet the "Fraser guidelines". Our factsheet explains Gillick competency and Fraser guidelines.

At what age can a child be employed?

See our factsheet on Employment of children and the law.

This briefing is for information only and does not constitute legal advice. Please note that this content is of a general nature, and may not represent a comprehensive review of the literature. Search the NSPCC Library Online for more publications.

Contact the NSPCC's information service for further information on any child protection topic