Legal definition of a child
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
In the UK, specific age limits are set out in relevant laws or government guidance. There are, however, differences between the UK nations.back to top
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
Her Majesty's Government (2010) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children
. Nottingham: DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) Publications. (Paragraph 1.19).Wales
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).Scotland
Scottish Office (1998) Protecting children: a shared responsibility: guidance on inter-agency co-operation
. Edinburgh: The Stationery Office (TSO).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.back to top
What is the age of consent?
The Sexual Offences Act 2003
states that the age of consent for sex is 16 in England and Wales. The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008
brings the age of consent in Northern Ireland down from 17 to 16, 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 under 13 can never legally give consent, so any sexual activity with a child aged 12 or under will be subject to the maximum penalties.
The legislation also gives extra protection to 16 and 17 year-olds. 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 and sports coaches) to engage in sexual activity with anyone under the age of 18.
The Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005
supplements the Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995
and a new Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill (PDF)
, introduced in June 2008, will provide the same protection for children in Scotland.See also:
Home Office (2004) Children and families: safer from sexual crime: the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (PDF)
. [London]: Home Office.back to top
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”.back to top
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 sections 17 and 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:
“The child’s reactions, his or her perceptions, and wishes and feelings should be ascertained and the local authority should give them due consideration, so far as is reasonably practicable and consistent with the child’s welfare and having regard to the child’s age and understanding". (See paragraph 1.30 of: Her Majesty's Government (2010) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children
. Nottingham: DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) Publications.)
Section 3(3) of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995
“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).”back to top
At what age is parental consent no longer required?
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
: Hamilton, Carolyn, Claridge, Joanne, and Du Rietz, Rebecca (2006) 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
.back to top
At what age can a child be employed?
See our factsheet on Employment of children and the law
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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.