A child's legal rights Legal definitions

What is a child?

Two boys smilingThe UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as everyone under 18 unless, "under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier" (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1989). The UK has ratified this convention.

However there are a number of different laws across the UK that specify age limits in different circumstances. These include child protection; age of consent; and age of criminal responsibility.


The definition of a child in child protection guidance

England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland each have their own guidance for organisations to keep children safe. They all agree that a child is anyone who is under the age of 18.

Child protection guidance

Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Northern Ireland (2016) Co-operating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland (DOCX). Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Northern Ireland.

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

Scottish Government (2014) National guidance for child protection in Scotland (PDF). Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

Vulnerable groups

Some especially vulnerable young people are entitled to services beyond the age of 18.

Local authorities in England and Wales must keep in touch with care leavers until they are at least 21. They should also provide assistance with education, employment and training. Local authorities in Northern Ireland also have this same duty.

Age of consent

The age of consent (the legal age to have sex) in the UK is 16 years old.

The laws are there to protect children. They are not there to prosecute under-16s who have mutually consenting sexual activity but will be used if there is abuse or exploitation involved.

To help protect younger children the law says anyone under the age of 13 can never legally give consent. This means that anyone engaging in sexual activity with a child who is 12 or younger will be subject to penalties set out under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

The law also gives extra protection to young people who are 16 to 17 years old. It is illegal to:

  • take, show or distribute indecent photographs
  • pay for or arrange sexual services
  • for a person in a position of trust (for example, teachers, care workers) to engage in sexual activity with anyone under the age of 18.

Age of criminal responsibility for children

The age of criminal responsibility in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is 10 years old.

Criminal responsibility is based on when a child is considered capable of committing a crime and old enough to stand trial and be convicted of a criminal offence.

In Scotland the age of criminal responsibility is 8 years old but the age at which a child can be prosecuted is 12 years. Children under 12 may be referred to a social worker and a children’s hearing. A children’s hearing is a legal meeting and decisions made can become part of a criminal record.

Children’s wishes

Girl balancing on a wallMost guidance for services for children, like safeguarding and health care, emphasises how important it is to listen to the wishes of the child.

However, authorities have a duty to act in the best interests of the child which may mean contradicting their wishes. Legislation in England and Wales asks that due consideration is given to the wishes and feelings of a child as far as reasonable before making decisions on what services to provide or action to take. 

In Northern Ireland a court has to take into consideration a child’s wishes and feelings but only if the child is old enough to understand the situation.

International children’s rights

Some rights are recognised at the international level through agreements between governments. The UK has signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), both of which set out a number of children’s rights

European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)

The 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is an international treaty which gives a set of rights to both adults and children. The Human Rights Act 1998 made most of the ECHR UK law. This means that children can complain to a UK court if their rights have been broken, and if the claim is rejected, take their claim to the European Court of Human Rights.

Rights set out in the convention include: the right to life, the right to be kept safe from torture and cruel treatment, freedom from slavery, the right to a fair trial, the right to respect for private and family life, and the right to an education.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)

In 1990 the UK signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Convention sets out the rights of every child in the world to survive, grow, participate and fulfil their potential. It sets standards for education, health care, social services and penal laws, and establishes the right of children to have a say in decisions that affect them.

The Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 made Wales the first, and so far only, country in the UK to make the UNCRC part of its domestic law.

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.

Child protection in the UK

How the systems and laws of the UK and its 4 nations work to keep children safe from abuse and harm.
More about the child protection system

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  1. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (1989) UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. United Nations